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Visual Literacy in the Age of Participation Author(s): Barbara Rockenbach and Carole Ann Fabian Source:
Visual Literacy in the Age of Participation Author(s): Barbara Rockenbach and Carole Ann Fabian Source:

Visual Literacy in the Age of Participation Author(s): Barbara Rockenbach and Carole Ann Fabian

Source: Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, Vol.

27, No. 2 (Fall 2008), pp. 26-31 Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Art Libraries Society of North America Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27949492 Accessed: 04-11-2018 16:44 UTC

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Visual Literacy in the Age of Participation

Barbara Rockenbach and Carole Ann Fabian

Every image sheds light on the assumptions of the day.

Every image reveals, as well as defines, events. Every image

must be read, must be interpreted. This is a perilous act, one that often leads us far away from the safe ground sought by

most historians. Yet reading the image, like reading any text, is a way to engage the past and connect it to our lives.1

Louis Masur, Historian

PART ONE - A Landscape for Understanding Visual Literacy

/. The Age of Participation

We like to categorize and name things. Naming helps us to create meaning about ourselves and our role in the world. The

naming of our times has followed a rich lineage starting with

the Hunter/Gatherer Age, moving to the Agriculture Age, the

Industrial Age, and most recently leading us to the Information

Age. The Information Age has defined much of what we do in our professions for the last several decades, and most library and information science practice derives from notions of the

Information Age. However, we are now faced with a changing

world of information and services, one that potentially goes

beyond information. Can we still characterize our times as the

Information Age? The answer to that question has an influence

on both user expectations and our role as information profes

sionals, especially as we examine the skills and competencies the current age requires, among them visual literacy.

There is no shortage of theorists trying to determine the

answer to the question of what to name the current era in which we live, floating names such as the Web 2.0 Age,2 the Conceptual Age,3 and the Age of Participation.4 The Information Age, as we know it, began in the mid-twentieth century when the economic

base of much of the world shifted from the production of physical

goods (Industrial Age) to the production and manipulation of

data or information. This shift really took hold in the mid-1980s

with the development of the personal computer and blossomed

further in the 1990s with widespread development and adoption

of the Internet. Just a decade after what many are now calling

Web 1.0, a potential new age is upon us.

The Information Age and associated Web 1.0 era is being

eclipsed by a new Web 2.0 era. In 2004, Tim O'Reilly coined the

buzzword Web 2.0 to describe a trend in the use of Web tech

nology that aims to create communities for information sharing

and collaboration. Also emphasized in the Web 2.0 world

is creativity on the part of the users, or a desire and ability to

26 Art Documentation ? Volume 27, Number 2 ? 2008

contribute as well as consume. This means a world where the

flow of information is a two-way rather than a one-way street, where receivers of information are no longer passive consumers

but active contributors. These Web 2.0 concepts have led to the development of online communities and social networking Web

sites such as Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, and Wikipedia, and more generally, applications such as wikis, blogs, and folksonomies. Another theorist, Daniel Pink, has written in Wired Magazine

and a book entitled A Whole New Mind about what he calls the

Conceptual Age. He argues that as a result of outsourcing white

collar or Information Age jobs to Asia, a general abundance of wealth and cheap goods, and the automation of number

crunching activities, we are moving from a left-brain dominant society to a right-brain society. In essence, creativity, emotion, and synthesis are in vogue:

The Information Age we all prepared for is ending. Rising in

its place is what I call the Conceptual Age, an era in which mastery of abilities that we've often overlooked and under

valued marks the fault line between who gets ahead and who

falls behind

In a world upended by outsourcing, deluged

with data, and choked with choices, the abilities that matter

most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right

hemisphere?artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and

pursuing the transcendent.5

Therefore, according to Pink, our former linear world of

information is changing. New abilities and new skills sets are

perhaps not only valued but necessary in our current age. A final way of characterizing our age, and one that particu

larly relates both to our times and the concept of visual literacy,

is the Age of Participation. Jonathan Swartz describes the Age of Participation, which incorporates aspects of both the theories of

Web 2.0 and the Conceptual Age, as follows:

The old flow of information has been disrupted and an open

and competitive network fuels growing opportunities for

everyone?not simply to draw data or shift work around the

world, but to participate, to create value and independence.

If the Information Age was passive, the Participation Age is active.6

This focus on active users is essential to an understanding of our age. The existence of active, creative users willing to engage in the process of information creation presents new challenges

and opportunities for information professionals. Across func

tional areas, librarianship is moving away from more controlled, passive, and didactic modes in which, rather than users seeking

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to be given information, we now have users who wish to be

more active participants in the information-seeking process. For example, whereas bibliographic description of library materials

was once solely the purview of library cataloging depart

ments, we now see growing instances of library catalog records enhanced by user tagging and other social methods to make the materials more findable and more relevant to today's users. For

example, the University of Pennsylvania has built a tool called

PennTags to allow users to tag and group URLs, articles, and

other information sources by their preferences. Our students

now arrive on campus expecting a more dynamic interaction and a more active role in their learning process, requiring an

instructional shift that affects faculty as well as librarians. The expectation of a more participatory process forces information

professionals to rethink their role in the flow of information and

suggests responsibility for nurturing a new range of skills and

literacies such as higher-level critical thinking skills, problem

based inquiry, and visual literacy.

2. Visual Literacy Definition and Role in Age of Participation

There are many ways in which visual literacy has been

defined in the last several decades. The term itself was first

coined in 1968 by John Debes, an employee of Kodak at the time

who characterized visual literacy as follows:

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 devel

opment 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


The focus in this definition is not on art or art historical

reading of images, but on a set of capabilities that, for those familiar with the ACRL Information Literacy competencies,8

should look familiar, allowing us to make the connection

between visual literacy and the age of participation. Visual literacy has only become a focus of study in the informa

tion professions in the last decade. Notions of textual literacy

have been with us for much longer and were embedded into

the philosophy of libraries from the very beginning. Andrew

Carnegie, creator of over 2,500 libraries around the world, states how textual literacy?the ability to literally read and understand

complex works?was bound up with his founding principles

from the beginning. "Show me the man who speaks English,

reads Shakespeare and Bobby Burns and ITI show you a man

who has absorbed the American principles. He will most likely

read also the Declaration of Independence and Washington's Farewell Address."9

This link between libraries and textual literacy was impor

tant in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, literacies change over time as our culture changes or, as Richard

Sinatra points out, "A culture's predominant mode of literacy

depends on the technology and mass media it embraces."10

The predominant technologies and mass media of our time are

primarily visual. In addition to the visual mediums that have been with us for years (images in magazines, newspapers, on

billboards, television and film) we now have the Internet, video

games, and digital cameras in everything from our computers

to our phones. The proliferation of digital mass media and our individual ability to not only observe but to actively create, use,

and share it, is further extended by the emergence of online

social networking environments such as Flickr, Yahoo images,

YouTube, and Facebook. The library is now in a position of having to respond to these environments that are emerging

outside of the academy. The democratization of Web 2.0 technolo

gies suggests opportunities for libraries to think creatively about

capturing users' attention. For example, the Library of Congress

recently launched a pilot project to expose approximately 3,000

of its most popular images in The Commons on Flickr. Within

days 650,000 images were viewed and 420 had been tagged

by users; by March 2008 the Library of Congress reported that user-supplied tags helped the Library enhance sixty-eight biblio graphic records.11 In addition to changes in the external image

landscape, the academic library is being called upon to provide

and support the use of visual materials in unprecedented ways

on campus: for example, evolving curricula draw on visual and

textual materials across disciplinary boundaries and require the

library to provide teaching/learning materials beyond tradi tional books and journals. The library, not always the site of

image management, is now often building collections of images,

subscribing to licensed resources of images and other media, and

is often the creator and caretaker of institutional repositories of

locally produced visual, textual, and media content. The presence of an audience of users who expect to be active participants in their learning process and of a culture dominated

by images suggests a need for renewed emphasis on visual

literacy skills or competencies. The moment also presents an

opportunity for art librarians expert in the area of visual mate

rials to integrate their strengths in literacy instruction and their

domain knowledge of the visual into more active, participatory

teaching and learning approaches. One such approach might be

the adaptation of the ACRL Information Literacy Standards to

the specific competencies required for visual literacy in the arts.

Art librarianship has always been anchored to the visual?a variety of photographic or other-rendered representations of

objects and built environments, most often still images but increasingly more time-based media, 3-D visualizations, and

complex graphical works. Visuals are the currency of art educa tion and scholarship. We have addressed the presence of images

in our profession primarily through art historical techniques such as close analysis and other forms of systematic looking.

This has been adequate for the classroom and the field of art and art history, yet our age calls for a different mode of visual anal

ysis that acknowledges the ubiquity and importance of images

in society. James Elkins, in his book Visual Studies,12 provides an excellent and complex overview about concepts of visuality,

visual culture, and visual studies. Among many provocative

ideas, he distinguishes between the traditional domain-specific analysis of complex images and the more modern "infographie"

decoding of contemporary images. In the former, an image is studied as a complex representation requiring the viewer to construct meaning over time through iterative looking,

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Figure 1. Robert Campin and Assistant. The Annunciation Triptych, ca. 1425. The Metropolitan Museum of

Figure 1. Robert Campin and Assistant. The Annunciation Triptych, ca. 1425. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection. ARTstor: Images

for Academic Publishing: Image ? The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

4>0 JL

Figure 2. Selection of icons from the AIGA inventory of symbol signs.

http://www, aiga .orgl con tent, cfm/symbol-signs

thinking, and contextual analysis. Think, for example, of the

literacy required to "read" and understand Robert Campin's The

Annunciation Triptych (Figure 1). An infographie image by contrast

uses visuals as a textual shorthand to communicate simpler or

more direct contemporary understanding of a message deliv

ered as an image. Think, for example, of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) inventory of symbol systems (Figure 2)

that provides a universal graphic communication standard for

directional and informational signage. Simple infographies like

these can also be read within more complex iconographie works.

For example, window surfaces in Rem Koolhaas's McCormack Tribune Campus Center (Figure 3) are used as iconographie

elements conveying a variety of meanings, such as referencing

28 Art Documentotion ? Volume 27, Number 2 ? 2008

historical traditions of communication and ornamentation in

architectural surface treatments (e.g., hieroglyphics), and the use of the dot-matrix patterning (similar to Lichtenstein's) to create large-scale portraits of architects. Within subject domains, there is also the "literacy" element of competence in recognizing core

images or representational types. It is important to note that

visual literacy takes on varied meanings within different disci

plinary contexts. The visually literate scientist or engineer may possess entirely different visual mind-maps than visually literate

humanists. It may not be possible to expect all learners to be

competent in all areas of visuality, but basic skills can be taught

in all areas of visuality, but basic skills can be taught Figure 3. Rem Koolhaas OMA

Figure 3. Rem Koolhaas OMA (born 1944). McCormick Tribune Campus Center; detail of glass with embedded designs, 2003. Illinois Institute of

Technology, Chicago, IL. ARTstor: Image ART on File ? 2007 Artists

Rights Society (ARS), New York / BEELDRECHT, Hoofddorp, NL.

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and learned. In art/art history we might define competence to some extent as knowledge of canonical images, whereas in other

disciplines it might be that radiographie visuals, astrological

charts, geographic and cartographic imaging, or other normative image types are considered to be core elements of competence in

their respective fields.

The 2008 Horizon Report lists four critical challenges for

learning organizations in the coming five years. Among them

is a call for institutions to "provide formal instruction in infor

mation, visual, and technological literacy as well as in how to

create meaningful content with today's tools."13 As art informa

tion specialists, we have a skill set that creates an opportunity

to be leaders in the area of visual literacy across the disciplines.

The call for a focus on visual literacy in higher education or

the opportunity "to take a systematic institutional approach to

defining core values that include visual acuity alongside the

ability to read and write"14 affords art information professionals

the chance to lead their campus in these efforts. Because visual

literacy is a life skill rather than just an academic exercise, it is

one of the most important things we can teach students.

PART TWO - Visual Literacy in Art Librarianship Practice

3. Visual Literacy and the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards

A comparison between the textual and the visual can be

drawn using the ACRL definitions of information literacy and

one understanding of visual literacy; that is, visual literacy can be

understood as a form of critical viewing in much the same way as information literacy can be understood as critical thinking.

The ACRL Standards presuppose that there is an information

need, a question to be answered. In visual literacy, the point

of departure is a visual object to be understood. The Standards

provide a methodological approach for uncovering, under

standing, and appropriately using information; we think they

provide for uncovering, understanding, and appropriately using

visuals as well. The ACRL Standards approach can be useful in

understanding both a specific visual and the more generalized

understanding of visual cues in context. The Standards provide

a systematic way of decoding what is seen and help learners

construct meaning from visual points of departure.

Since the Standards are so widely known and accepted, it

might be useful to parse each of them for their particular rele vance to establishing a basic construct for visual literacy.

ACRL Competency Standard 1: The information-literate student

determines the extent of the information needed.

Visual Literacy interpretation: Indicators for this competence would center on a user's ability to observe a visual object and

the ability to first construct a question about that object, pose

a problem set related to the object, and construct a problem

solving strategy to answer the questions and explore the

visual "problem." In an active learning setting, the librarian

can facilitate the users' discovery sequence?a process that

asks them to use innate or learned skills for seeing, observing,

and note-taking. Outcomes of this user-inquiry phase would

be the articulation of questions and identification of problems that must be explored in order to understand the visual.

ACRL Competency Standard 2: The information-literate student

accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.

Visual Literacy interpretation: When questions and problems are articulated, users working with the librarian can together begin to explore the relevant resources needed to answer their

inquiries. Indicators would include identification of needed

research resources for each area of inquiry, development

of search strategies for each resource, understanding of the

intellectual structure of the resources, tools needed for further

examination and evaluation of the object, and preparation

of documentation methodology. Outcomes of user inquiry could be identification of relevant resources, execution of

search strategies, preliminary annotated resource list, and

proficiency in software, hardware, or other tools needed to

fully support examination and study of the visual object.

ACRL Competency Standard 3: The information-literate student

evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates

selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.

Visual Literacy interpretation: Indicators for this Standard

might include comparative analysis of the literature, an

understanding of the relative merit of one source over

another, cultural context of work and its effect on meaning,

exploration of authenticity, issues of connoisseurship and

provenance, and the ability to place the image within a mean ingful context?aesthetic, historical, political, social or other.

Outcomes would include image recognition and identifica

tion, the selection of the most relevant trustworthy source of

support materials, and the identification of other visuals that

place the subject visual within a broader context, interpreta

tion, and contextual understanding of the image.

ACRL Competency Standard 4: The information-literate student,

individually or as a member of a group, uses information effectively to

accomplish a specific purpose.

Visual Literacy interpretation: Indicators would include use

of the visual object to fulfill a particular curricular or creative

purpose (as determined by information seeker). Outcomes

would include the ability to use appropriate technologies to

create work products such as presentations, bibliographies,

Webliographies, interactive environments, etc., intermingled

with substantive content drawn from supporting literature

and potentially, other visual material.

ACRL Competency Standard 5: The information-literate

student understands many of the economic, legal and social issues

surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information

ethically and legally.

Visual Literacy interpretation: For visual objects this is a

Standard of particular importance, since the rights frame

work for visual material, especially visual objects most often

used in teaching and research settings, is so complex and,

in many cases, not well articulated in legal documentation.

Indicators for Standard 5 would include an understanding

of intellectual copyrights as they apply to visual materials,

architectural works, limitations on use of images in derivative

works, economics of licensed use, understanding of creator

rights organizations, and international differences in use of

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images. Expected user outcomes would include demonstra

tion of appropriate use of conventions for citation, authorized

use of images and observance of terms and conditions of use

for works used in their work products, and an understanding

and compliance with the economics/fees associated with use

of images for educational as opposed to commercial purposes. When the outcome is itself a derivative work, these same indi

cators would also be relevant with the addition of an under

standing of the rights of creators to their creative intellectual property and the legal framework that governs these as well.

4. Practical Applications of Visual Literacy as It Relates to Teaching Methodologies (conversation theory; constructive theory)

Learning evolves from the concrete to the abstract; visual

hierarchy begins with understanding and moves to an end goal

of critical literacy skills. Therefore, teaching visual thinking

needs to begin with practical exercises that encourage learners

to participate in the learning process. It allows the learner to

directly address a concrete problem and apply critical thinking

skills to arrive at the answer. The idea is to prompt learners to

be able to generalize and apply these skills across a broad range

of visual encounters, ranging from a politician's Web site to an

advertisement to a work of photojournalism. Several approaches

make it possible for learners to discover the multiple meanings

in images on their own.

Constructivist theory and active learning methods are

often discussed in the K-12 learner context. However, it has

been applied and well documented as an approach in museum education for all learners, and can be effectively applied in

higher education as well. In all settings, direct student engage

ment in the process of learning is emphasized as a fundamental

element for the acquisition of knowledge and the construction of

meaning. That is,

The learning of complex subject matter is most effective when it is an intentional process of constructing meaning from information and experience

Successful learners are active, goal-directed, self-regulating, and assume personal responsibility for contributing to their

own learning.15

The ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for

Higher Education give librarians a framework for teaching goals,

and together with constructivist/active learning strategies,

present a workable pedagogical approach for delivering library

instruction to visual arts students. In addition, introducing arti factual evidence (the art object or its surrogate image) brings an

immediacy and relevance to the research process that is some

what obscured by more traditional approaches to instruction

such as the narrative lecture or demonstration sessions.

This connection of an object and a topic with the promotion

of an activity having a purpose is the first and last word of a genuine theory of interest in education.16

A library-facilitated visual literacy experience would engage learners directly in a conversation about an image, drawing out

initial reactions. Then, through a series of collective observations,

questions, and responses, users begin to form an area of interest

and a spark of inquiry that the librarian can use to guide further

visual exploration in an attempt to eventually bridge to the textual

30 Art Documentation ? Volume 27, Number 2 ? 2008

resource arena. An important aspect of constructivist approach

is its inherently non-linear structure resulting from inquiry that

is directed by the learner, not the facilitator. The learners' prior

knowledge forms the basis for the discovery process which

grows from their frame of visual references. Learners enter the

discovery conversation equipped with their own skills of obser

vation and life experiences and from there push their limits

beyond their known boundaries. Another important aspect of

constructivist learning is the concept of "authenticity"?that

is, the learning experience is tied to a real-life (and therefore

authentic) purpose. In a higher-education setting, the explora

tion of an image is often tied to a curricular requirement, but transference of skills learned through this process would instill

competencies that would support visual understanding in any

experience. An ideal description of the process is provided for

the classroom setting in Constructivist Model for Learning:

The constructivist classroom presents the learner with

opportunities to build on prior knowledge and understanding

to construct new knowledge and understanding from

authentic experience. Students are allowed to confront

problems full of meaning because of their real-life context.

In solving these problems, students are encouraged to

explore possibilities, invent alternative solutions, collaborate

with other students (or external experts), try out ideas and

hypotheses, revise their thinking, and finally present the

best solution they can derive.17


As art information professionals, we are in a unique position to educate our users about a vital and necessary skill set, visual

literacy, relating to the current age in which we live. We have the

background and understanding of visual rubrics as they relate

to the fields of art and art history and, as we have outlined here,

these rubrics can be expanded to other fields and disciplines. The confluence of our skills, Web 2.0 technologies, and most impor

tantly, a desire on the part of our learners to be active participants

in their own learning process, creates an environment where it

is possible to imagine "the visual" catching and even eclipsing

the textual in the area of information literacy. As Daniel Pink

notes, "We've progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now

we're progressing yet again?to a society of creators and empa

thizers, pattern makers, and meaning makers."18 As never before,

art information professionals are equipped to address a skill set

that is increasingly relevant not only to the educational context but to a larger social, political, and economic context as well.


1. Louis Masur, "Pictures Have Now Become a Necessity:

The Use of Images in American History Textbooks," The Journal

of American History 84, No. 4 (March 1998): 1,410. 2. Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age (New York: Riverhead

Books, 2005).

3. Tim O'Reilly, "What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and

Business Models for the Next Generation of Software," http://


what-is-web-20.html (accessed May 28, 2008).

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4. Jonathan Swartz, Jonathan's Blog, Monday April 4,2005,

http://blogs.sun.com/jonathan/date/20050404 (accessed

January 21,2008).

5. Daniel Pink, "Revenge of the Right Brain," Wired

13, no. 2 (February 2005), http: / /www.wired.com/wired/

archive/13.02/brain.html (accessed January 29,2008).

6. Swartz, Jonathan's Blog.

7. John Debes, "What is Visual Literacy? International

Visual Literacy Association," http: / /www.ivla.org/org_what_

visjithtm 1969 (accessed March 15,2008).

8. Association of College and Research Libraries,

Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education

(Chicago: American Library Association, 2000), http://www.

ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlstandards/standards.pdf (accessed May


9. David Macleod, Carnegie Libraries in Wisconsin (New

York: Arno Press, 1968), 17.

10. Richard Sinatra, Visual Literacy Connections to Thinking,

Reading and Writing (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1986). 11. Raymond Matt, "More Photos in Flickr," Library of

Congress Blog, http://www.loc.gov/blog/?p=268 (accessed

May 10,2008).

12. James Elkins, Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction

(New York: Routledge, 2003), chapter 4.

13. "The New Media Consortium and the EDUCAUSE

Learning Initiative," The Horizon Report (Austin, TX: New

Media Consortium, 2008), 5-6, http://www.nmc.org/

pdf/2008-Horizon-Report.pdf (accessed May 12,2008).

14. Susan Metros and Kristina Woolsey, "Visual Literacy:

An Institutional Imperative," Educause Review 41, no. 3 (May/ June 2006): 6.

15. Learner-Centered Psychological Principles: A Framework

for School Reform & Redesign, Learner-Centered Principles

Work Group, Board of Educational Affairs (BEA) American

Psychological Association (November 1997), http:/ /www.apa.

org/ed/lcp2/lcptext.html (accessed July 29,2008).

16. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York:

MacMillan, 1916), 158.

17. Constructivist Model for Learning, North Central Regional

Educational Laboratory. Learning Point Associates (2004),


science/ sc5model.htm (accessed May 29,2008).

18. Daniel Pink, "Revenge of the Right Brain," Wired

13, no. 2 (February 2005), http: / /www.wired.com/wired/ archive/ 13.02/brain.html (accessed January 29,2008).

Barbara Rockenbach,

Director of Undergraduate & Library Research Education,

Yale University Library, New Haven,

barbara, rockenbach@yale.edu

Carole Ann Fabian,

Director of Planning,

Outreach and Communications,

ARTstor Digital Library, New York,


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