Bringing the Visual to Digital Literacies

by Kristina Bush

In August, I started working at the University of California, Berkeley as Digital Literacies Librarian. Prior to this position, I worked at the Sloane Art Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Though I wasn’t an art history / library science dual master’s student at UNC, I come from an art history and museum studies background and I was sad to be leaving the field of art librarianship. However, as many other Snappers have experienced, you can take the art librarian out of the art library, but you can’t take the love of art out of the librarian. In my first semester of work at Berkeley, I brought an art perspective to a digital literacies workshop series by incorporating activities that emphasized close looking and visual culture. After all, the prevalence of digital media has made visual literacy skills increasingly important, and thus a central element of digital literacies.

Berkeley’s Design for Digital Literacies discussion series Fall 2019 included the following topics: “Visual Literacy: Learning to Look / Looking to Learn,” “Defining Digital Literacies,” and “Instagram, Memes, and Viral Videos… Oh My!” This series ran twice – once for faculty members, hosted by the College Writing Department, and once for librarians as an Instructor Development Program series.

The first talk of the series was on the topic of visual literacy. I co-facilitated this session with my boss, Instruction Services Division Head Nicole E. Brown, who quite literally wrote the book on Visual Literacy. If you haven’t read Visual Literacy for Libraries: A Practical, Standards-Based Guide, request a copy now! It contains activity plans that you can easily incorporate into instruction sessions (for faculty, staff, and/or students!) no matter the subject area. In planning for the Visual Literacy workshop, we pulled from Brown’s text, selecting the activities that we believed would most engage with the prompt of learning to look at and analyze images in the process of digitally-based research. We led the attendees through several close looking exercises that they could incorporate into instruction. 

One close looking activity that we used in the Visual Literacy workshop is used often by Berkeley’s Instruction Services Division. Since I started work at Berkeley, members of my division have been incredibly generous and allowed me to observe their instruction sessions and jointly created a repository of instruction “chunks,” or remixable activities and slides they’ve used in workshops. I often use this particular chunk to start an instruction session – you start by displaying an image related to the course content.  It is important to select a work with good metadata so that you can do a big reveal to the students after they have interpreted the image. Have the students engage with the following questions in relation to the image:

1. What do I see?

2. What is going on? 

3. Why do I think this image was created?

A person with long hair and glasses looking at a wall of drawings.
Photo by Handy Wicaksono on Unsplash

After students have discussed their responses together and shared with the class, display the image with its metadata and ask if the metadata answered or confirmed any questions or suspicions they had about the piece. This activity engages with the ACRL information literacy frame of scholarship as conversation and the process of developing a research question. I use this activity to underscore the point that students need to ask questions and engage with other voices to learn more, and dig deeper, whatever their research topic may be. This quick and simple exercise allows us to begin the discussion and engage students in active and critical thinking. To those of us who are trained in art history, close looking is second nature, but to students and even faculty members in other departments, it can be a challenge that opens up a new pathway to engagement with course content. In the feedback I received from the faculty series, many of the audience were surprised by the activity and the experience of close looking.

As I mentioned above, visual literacy is an important part of digital literacies. Much of what we encounter online is visual – beyond gifs and memes, we interpret interactive graphs, charts, and timelines, we research using digital repositories, we archive digital art… the list goes on! I believe that visual literacy is only going to become more important, and we must teach students to have a critical eye when looking at any form of visual media. This was also the focus of “Instagrams, Memes, and Viral Videos… Oh My!” Though many of us Snappers are not working in an art library, we can teach the visual literacy skills that we’ve developed, we can sneak art history / museum studies lessons into information and digital literacies workshops. After all, it gives you an excuse to look through ArtStor on work time.

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