I Spy with My Little Eye - Teaching Visual Literacy


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Tammy Ravas and Megan Stark presentation for the "Case Studies II" session at the VRA + ARLIS/NA 2nd Joint Conference in Minneapolis, MN.

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  • * Visual Literacy can be difficult to define because every discipline uses images differently. Art scholars, humanities scholars, sociologists, will have different needs than biologists, physicists, or chemists. This is to say that visual literacy is not limited to the arts. Objects have been used to communicate messages and meanings throughout history– one example cited by Rockenbach and Fabian are the skills needed by medieval viewers to interpret religious imagery such as triptych paintings. Media, images are becoming more prominent in student and faculty work thanks to ever-advancing technologies and the ease by which users can create multimedia productions on their own. According to Lawrence Lessig in his lecture at the Computer History Museum, at one point text-- reading and writing– was the main means of education used by scholars; visuals and media was the means understood by the masses. The divide between these two means of communication is non-existent now due to technological advances.
  • Major questions here: (1) What do we have the right to observe? (2) What is this image? Who is the author? What facts do you have here? Do we have the right to view this?Students did not have the background information or context of the photo prior to being asked these questions. They struggled with this. With the following background information, do we still have a right to view this image?Photo Info: On July 22, 1975, Stanley J. Forman took this infamous photograph while working for the Boston Herald. He climbed on the back of a fire truck as it raced towards a reported fire at Marlborough Street. Just as the crew had arrived at the scene, a young woman and small girl fell from an apartment above. The woman died instantly, but the young girl lived. This photo earned Forman a Pulitzer prize, and in addition, convinced Boston and several other cities to introduce more comprehensive fire safety laws. Forman indicated that he turned from the scene as the bodies hit because he could not imagine snapping that shot.What was concluded at the end of this activity was that students are not able to reasonably evaluate an image without context or accompanying text at first glance. Evaluating text is almost “old hat” to students in that they’re taught to critically evaluate it. With photos/images, they’re not. This is an interesting difference in evaluating different kinds of information. Students in this activity take images at face value.
  • While there is one argument made by Nerissa Nelson in a 2004 article in Education Libraries stating that teaching visual literacy skills falls outside of the librarian’s purview, I disagree.While all librarians might not be qualified to teach someone all of the discipline-related nuances in images, librarians can cover general critical thinking skills regarding images and they can also assist users in finding images. Here are just a few resources in our library guide that can help. These first slide shows links to image databases to which the Mansfield Library subscribes as well as a “Finding Images” library guide. The second slide shows links to visual literacy pedagogical resources. I only have time to cover a few of these resources today, but I can discuss others at the end of the session.
  • The first resource I’ll discuss is ARTstor. Everyone here is likely familiar with this database and the reason I chose it for a visual literacy discussion is the metadata for images: it includes creator, location of object, or owning institution/collection, basic textual description. One interesting question that has arisen is the notion of authority in how images are selected for collections (virtual or physical)– especially in terms of interdisciplinary needs or exploring biases within the needed image and its context. Megan and I intend to explore this question further in our research.
  • When considering context for images and using ARTstor, we have advised students to view descriptions of named collections and their significance. This helps give needed background or textual information to critically evaluate an image.
  • Here are more examples of metadata for images from ARTstor.
  • Depending on the type of subscription you have to FirstSearch databases, you might already have access to this image database. CAMIO works similarly to ARTstor, in terms of searching and metadata, but it contains less images.
  • Google Image Search is easy to use, but may not always give context to needed to critically evaluate images. I’ve instructed students to use more authoritative meta-sites like this one found at Boston University. In particular, I appreciate the subject-specificity of this site.
  • These links on our library guide will take you to sites containing visual literacy exercises. Some of these are meant for k-12 students, but could still be helpful.
  • Example: Here’s a web site related to the Newseum’s “Is Seeing Believing” curriculum. The site works with manipulation of images throughout history– another great visual literacy-related topic.
  • We hope that this presentation gave you some basic information on visual literacy and provided some helpful sources. Please let us know if you have any questions.
  • I Spy with My Little Eye - Teaching Visual Literacy

    1. 1. I Spy with My Little Eye:An Introduction to Visual Literacy<br />Tammy Ravas, Visual and Performing Arts Librarian <br />Megan Stark, Undergraduate Services Librarian<br />University of Montana - Mansfield Library<br />VRA+ARLIS/NA Annual Conference<br />Minneapolis, MN<br />Case Studies II <br />March 25, 2011 9am <br />
    2. 2. Library Guidehttp://libguides.lib.umt.edu/visual_literacy<br />
    3. 3. What is Visual Literacy?<br />Definitions vary according to discipline.<br />General definition incorporates skills of interpreting and discriminating visual objects and their potential meanings.<br /> Images, symbols, and artwork, have carried a plethora of meanings depending on their context and settings throughout history.<br />As technology progresses, use of images and media become equally important to writing in terms of scholarly communication. <br />
    4. 4. Visual Literacy Exercise<br />"In teaching us a new visual code, <br />photographs alter and enlarge <br />our notions of what is worth looking at <br />and what we have a right to observe.”<br />Susan Sontag, In Plato’s Cave<br />What do we have the right to observe?<br />
    5. 5. Evaluating Information<br />Bias: What is the author’s stance or opinion about the topic? <br />Authorship (Sponsorship): What are the credentials of the author? Who may have sponsored, or paid for, this information?<br />Credibility (Accuracy): Is the information substantiated by facts? Is it confirmed by other sources?<br />Coverage (Scope): Who is the intended audience? Does the information cover your topic in a meaningful, thorough way?<br />Purpose: Is the information useful for your topic? Is it directly speaking to an issue you have identified?<br />Timeliness: Is the information timely to the topic?<br />Reliability (Verifiability): Is the information valid? Is it supported by other credible sources? <br />Image Source: http://www.reasonpad.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/woman_and_girl_falling.jpg<br />
    6. 6. Sources for locating images<br />
    7. 7. ARTstor<br />
    8. 8.
    9. 9.
    10. 10. CAMIO<br />
    11. 11. Other resources for searching the web<br />
    12. 12. More Resources on Visual Literacy<br />
    13. 13.
    14. 14. Concluding Thoughts<br />Questions?<br />