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Companion Document to the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education: Visual Literacy

Created by the ACRL Visual Literacy Task Force

The Framework for Visual Literacy in Higher Education


The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) groups and task forces regularly review existing literacy guidelines and standards.[i] As a component of this revision, these groups were asked to align existing literacy standards and guidelines with the 2016 ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.[ii] In 2018, the Image Research Interest Group (IRIG) was charged with creating a visual literacy companion document[iii] to re-envision the 2011 ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education[iv] and the ACRL Visual Literacy Standards Task Force (VLTF) was convened for this purpose.

While some see visual literacy as a concern limited to the fields of art, architecture, and design,[v] visual information is truly multidisciplinary in nature.[vi] Visuals can include but are not limited to charts, drawings, graphs, icons, maps, memes, paintings, photographs, symbols, or other visualizations, as well as multimodal texts[vii] with visual elements.[viii]

Visual literacy definitions differ among disciplines. The definition below, from the 2011 ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, is commonly used in the context of librarianship:

Visual literacy is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.[ix]

Students across higher education must have opportunities to develop critical and ethical ways of engaging with visual information in order to become discerning citizens in today’s

image-saturated society. To create a companion document that reflects this approach to visual literacy, the VLTF conducted empirical research from 2019-2021, interviewing stakeholders in a range of roles and disciplines.[x] The goal of this study was to identify what these practitioners perceived to be important trends, challenges, and opportunities for visual literacy.

Informed by the study's findings, we identified four emerging themes for learning in visual literacy. These themes form the structure of this companion document:

  • Learners participate in a changing visual information landscape
  • Learners perceive visuals as communicating information
  • Learners practice visual discernment and criticality
  • Learners pursue social justice through visual practice

This companion is not designed as a standalone document; rather it is to be used in direct discourse with the Framework for Information Literacy. Throughout the drafting process, our aim has been to create a flexible document to support a variety of users, including scholars, librarians, students, and communities of practice. To this end, we expanded the conceptual underpinnings of our four themes, and created associated knowledge practices and dispositions to address a variety of educators’ and learners’ needs. We also use the phrase, “Learners who are developing their visual literacy abilities,” to signal that visual literacy requires continuous and lifelong engagement. The resulting document is a reflection of the 2016 Framework’s expanded understanding of information literacy,[xi] as well as the changing landscape of both visual information and visual communication. Ultimately, we hope that educators across the disciplines will be able to use this document as they continue to incorporate visual literacy into their curricula.

How to read this document

We chose not to group our knowledge practices and dispositions[xii] according to the frames of the Framework for Information Literacy. Instead, we suggest potential connections between the knowledge practices and dispositions within each of our themes and the frames of the 2016 Framework. In the document below, these potential connections are denoted as follows: Authority Is Constructed and Contextual [AICC], Information Creation as a Process [ICaaP], Information Has Value [IHV], Research as Inquiry [RaI], Scholarship as Conversation [SaC], and Searching as Strategic Exploration [SaSE]. As in the Framework for Information Literacy, these knowledge practices and dispositions are in an alphabetical order and not arranged according to hierarchy.

In addition, it should be noted that some practitioners have called for the adoption of a social justice-oriented frame as part of a revised Framework for Information Literacy.[xiii] While social justice is the primary focus of one of our four themes in this companion document, we believe social justice should not be siloed as a discrete entity for visual literacy learning. Rather, the pursuit of social justice must be recognized as integral to all aspects of visual practice. For this reason, each knowledge practice and disposition in our theme, “Learners pursue social justice through visual practice,” first appears in one of the three other themes, denoted as [SJ], before being reiterated in the final theme, in order to better reflect its fundamental role.

For additional related readings, please see our working bibliography at


[i] Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Guide to Policies and Procedures, Chapter 14: Standards, Guidelines, and Frameworks. “14.5 Procedures for Preparation of New Standards, Guidelines, and Frameworks.” 1996-2021.

[ii] Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Framework Taskforce, “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education,” Working Paper (Association of College and Research Libraries, February 20, 2014),

[iii] “Chapter 14: Standards, Guidelines, and Frameworks,” Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), September 1, 2006.

[iv] Association of College Research Libraries (ACRL), “ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education,” October 2011,

[v] What Is Visual Literacy?,” Visual Literacy Today. June 3, 2021.

[vi] Frank Serafini, “Visual Literacy,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education, February 27, 2017.

[vii] A multimodal text is a text that uses a combination of two or more modes of communication.

[viii] While this document focuses on the visual nature of these examples, some visuals may require applying additional literacies in order to fully engage.

[ix] Association of College Research Libraries (ACRL), “ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education,” October 2011,

[x] IRB #00001310 was coordinated through the University of San Diego.

[xi] Lori Townsend, Korey Brunetti, and Amy R. Hofer, “Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy,” portal: Libraries and the Academy 11, no. 3 (2011): 853–69; Thomas P. Mackey and Trudi E. Jacobson, Metaliteracy: Reinventing Information Literacy to Empower Learners. Chicago: Neal-Schuman, 2014; Carol C. Kuhlthau, “Rethinking the 2000 ACRL Standards: Some Things to Consider,” Communications in Information Literacy 7, no. 3 (2013): 92–7.

[xii] As a companion document, we derive our understanding of knowledge practices and dispositions from the Introduction to Framework for Information Literacy, see footnotes 3-6.

[xiii] Laura Saunders, “Connecting Information Literacy and Social Justice: Why and How,” Communications in Information Literacy 11, no.1 (2017): 55-75.

Karin Heffernan, “Loaded Questions: The Framework for Information Literacy through a DEI Lens,” College & Research Libraries News 81, no.8 (2020). Accessed June 3, 2021.

Christopher Sweet, “Overdue: Incorporating Social Justice into the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education,” College & Research Libraries News 82, no.5 (2021).

Authors of this document

Stephanie Beene, Fine Arts Librarian for Art, Architecture, and Planning, University of New Mexico

Millicent Fullmer, Acquisitions and Cataloging Librarian, University of San Diego

Katie Greer, Fine and Performing Arts Librarian, Oakland University

Maggie Murphy, Visual Art and Humanities Librarian, UNC Greensboro

Tiffany Saulter, Accessibility Consultant, Deque Systems

Sara Schumacher, Architecture Image Librarian, Texas Tech University

Dana Statton Thompson, Research and Instruction Librarian, Murray State University

Mary Wegmann, Collection Development Librarian, Sonoma State University