What is Visual Literacy?

The term — visual literacy — has come up several times in a couple of my classes this quarter. So what is visual literacy? John Debes defined this term first as this in 1968:

“Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a
human being can develop by seeing and at the same time
having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development
of these competencies is fundamental to normal
human learning. When developed, they enable a visually
literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible
actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he
encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of
these competencies, he is able to communicate with others.
Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is
able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual

Essentially, visual literacy is literacy of images, symbols, photos, etc. It is critical analysis of visuals instead of texts. Of course there are combinations of text and images, images and music, and on and on, but the important part of this is that a person is able to interpret and “read” it all.

As I thought about this, I was a little frustrated because I connected thinking critically about images with being artistic. How can I instruct or encourage or facilitate visual literacy in the library? What if I’m not artistic? And I am not artistic. I avoided all art classes (except photography) in my schooling. I almost wish I could go back and take some art classes to get a better grasp on the history of images and visual learning. I need to explore this more. But, I think it is possible to become visually literate without this knowledge.

It takes patience and practice, though. Just like learning to read.

In my class that explores genre fiction for adults, we read and discussed [comix, comics, graphic novels, etc]. Many of us had a difficult time reading these books simply because we didn’t understand how to read the text and the images. Do you look at the pictures first? Which text do you read? Left to right? Up and down? Follow the boxes with pictures in them? As we talked about our frustrations, someone brought up that it was almost like we had to learn how to read all over again. We had to become literate in a more visual format instead of the text we are accustomed to reading.

I’m fascinated with this term –visual literacy– and I hope to have a chance to explore it more and share conversation with other people.


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