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Visual Literacy

The Meaning of Images

To truly understand images and other visual media, it is important to interpret and analyze meaning using a number of strategies. Think about the information you get just by looking at the image -- the subject, the physical details, the context, and more. It is also important to consider the cultural, historical, and social contexts of an image. When and why was the image created and who was the intended audience? You can learn a lot about an image by considering the creator's physical, technical, and design choices. Think about whether the image is the original or a reproduction, and you should always inspect an image for signs of manipulation and editing. Finally, you can always turn to classmates and scholarly experts to seek out their opinions through participating in classroom discussions and by reading reference materials and journal articles.

For further information about visual literacy, see the ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.

Investigate These Images

Raising the Flag: Battle of Iwo Jima

Rosenthal, J. (1945). Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. [Photograph]. National Archives.

At the Time of the Louisville Flood

Bourke-White, M. (1937). At the Time of the Louisville Flood. [Photograph]. MoMA.

'Black Power' Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games (Mexico City)

Cogswell, R. (2017). 'Black Power' Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games (Mexico City). [Photograph]. Flickr.

Portrait of Chief Joseph in Native Dress with Ornaments

Moorhouse, L. (1900). Portrait (Front) of Chief Joseph in Native Dress with Ornaments. [Photograph]. Artstor.

Consider the following questions to fully investigate these images:

Content and Physical Details

Who or what is pictured?
When was the image created?
What is the overall tone? What feelings, moods, or thoughts does this work bring about?
What is the point of view, purpose, and central message that is being communicated?

Design Elements

What design characteristics can you identify? (e.g., colors, shapes, contrast)
Is there any text with the image? Is it accurate and appropriate for the image?


Are there any manipulative or persuasive strategies being used to influence the viewer?
Is there any editing or photoshopping? 
Can you independently verify any text accompany the image?
Where was the image found? Is this the original source of the image? Can you find the original source?



  • Suffrage paradeWhat major events were happening in the world when the image was created?
  • What can you tell about the time period, the economic conditions, and the landscape of the image?
  • What does this image tell us about life during the time period that it was created?
  • What is missing from the image?


Photograph of Suffrage Parade. (1913). [Photograph]. National Archives.

Find the Original Source

You can find the original source of an image by doing a reverse image search. Some of the tools for reverse image searching are:

TinEye                                                                                                                        Google Reverse Image Search
Google Reverse Image  Search
TinEye Reverse Image Search






Design Components

Consider the physical, technical, and design choices of an image. What choices did the image's creator make in constructing that image? How does the image construct meaning and influence interpretation?


Day and Night - Escher - abstract birds

Tree canopy from below


Polifoto (2018). Tree Canopy. [photo]. Pixabay. Retrieved from
Escher, M. C. (Maurits Cornelis). (1938). Day and Night. [woodcut]. ArtStor. Retrieved from

How did the image's creator compose, frame, and stage the image?
What was included and what was left out?
What techniques, technologies, and images were used to produce the image?
Is the image original or is it a reproduction?
Has the image been edited, altered, or manipulated in any way?

Image Manipulation

Techniques for altering and manipulating images are becoming more widespread and sophisticated. How can you tell if an image or video has been altered? For tips and more information, take a look at these resources.

Evaluating Historical Sources

Examining visual sources from Special Collections requires the user to ask questions of the document so that students can understand where the images can be placed in the historical narrative. The questions below allow the instructor to drop the students into the historical framework of how an image was created, who it was created for, and why was it created: 

  • What year is your document from? 
  • What do you recognize about the document? 
  • Who is in this image? 
  • Who is missing from this image? 
  • Why was this image, map, or document created? 

Using these questions allow for the archivist to employ the following guidelines for primary source literacy from SAA-ACRL/RBMS Joint Task Force on the Development of Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. 

  • "Critically evaluate the perspective of the creator(s) of a primary source, including tone, subjectivity, and biases, and consider how these relate to the original purpose(s) and audience(s) of the source." 
  • "Situate a primary source in context by applying knowledge about the time and culture in which it was created; the author or creator; its format, genre, publication history; or related materials in a collection."
  • "Critically evaluate the perspective of the creator(s) of a primary source, including tone, subjectivity, and biases, and consider how these relate to the original purpose(s) and audience(s) of the source."

These standards tie into the visual literacy standards from the ACRL framework and let students understand how historical documents can be interpreted differently by what materials are shown and what stories are missed from the narrative.