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Visual Literacy & Maps

Resources for critically reading maps and data visualizations.

About this Guide


This guide was created by the Map and Spatial Data Librarian and the Visual Literacy and Resources Librarian in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The main objective in creating this guide was to give library patrons the basic visual and spatial literacy skills needed to navigate the infodemic of visual information concerning COVID-19. Since we create the guide, we have expanded it to include other relevant topics that offer opportunities to discuss the importance of spatial and visual literacy skills.  


image of map and a hand

Image Caption: Students and the IUPUI community participate in the annual International Festival at the Campus Center on Wednesday February 14, 2018.



Spatial Literacy

"Spatial literacy is the competent and confident use of maps, mapping, and spatial thinking to address ideas, situations, and problems within daily life, society, and the world around us."1

We are asked to employ spatial thinking skills on an almost daily basis, but these skills are learned over time. The way we use and read maps is constantly evolving. We use maps to navigate around our spaces, to play games, and to learn important information about current events, health, and safety. 

Just like any source of information, maps should be read critically. Ask yourself: 

  1. What data drives this map? Is it accurate and authoritative? 
  2. How has the data been generalized or organized?
  3. Is the map projection appropriate for this type of map?
  4. Is the symbology clear and appropriate?
  5. Is it timely? When was it last updated?
  6. What is not being shown on this map?
  7. Who made this map? What are their biases? 


This guide will present methods and tools for accurately evaluating and reading maps by employing spatial and visual literacy skills. Use the tabs on the left to explore different topics. 

Further Reading: 


1. Diana S. Sinton, Executive Director of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science

Visual Literacy


At its core, visual literacy is a skill set that allows an individual to create and use images efficiently and ethically. Currently many definitions exist for visual literacy. This is because visual literacy is an adaptable concept that is relevant to all disciplines. One widely known and respected definition comes from the Association of College and Research Libraries Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, 2011. The ACRL defines visual literacy as,

"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". 

Why Does Visual Literacy Matter for Reading Maps?

Obtaining a visually literacy skill set is extremely important for interpreting visualizations and maps that you see throughout your academic and personal life. We live in a very visual society where we all come into contact with a variety of visual communications throughout our lives. It is essential for individuals to be able to tell the difference between reliable visual information and fake information. This is especially true when it comes to maps and data visualizations. 

When it comes to maps, a visually literate individual is able to...

  • Determine the nature and extent of the map needed

When looking for a map, it is important that you are able to recognize the type of map and the characteristics of the map you are looking for. Ask yourself some basic questions such as, am I looking for a geographical map or a data visualization? What type of key do I want the map to have? Am I looking for a map published by a specific organization,etc. 

  • Find and access needed maps 

Once you decide the characteristics of the map you are looking for, now you need to decide where to find them. Do you know of any reliable resources for finding visuals or do you know someone you can ask? Starting with the IUB Libraries website is a great move! You can also checkout my Advertisements, Illustrations, Photographs, and Artwork LibGuide and the Maps/GIS LibGuide to find image related databases that are accessible through IU. 


  • Evaluate maps

When evaluating maps, there are multiple areas of criteria that you will want to examine. In the spatial literacy box of this guide, Theresa lists several questions that would be very helpful to consider when you are evaluating a map. When evaluating a map, you will want to consider the source providing the map, the stylistic choices taken by the cartographer, and the accuracy of the information being presented. 


  • Use maps effectively

When using the information provided in a map, you want to make sure that you understand the meaning and purpose of the map. If you don't understand the information being provided in the map, you will not be able to use the map effectively. 


  • Understand many of the ethical, legal, social, and economic issues surrounding the creation and use of maps and how to use maps ethically.

There are always larger implications to scientific and geographical data. When analyzing a map, ask yourself, what does this information mean for our society, culture,etc.? What conclusions can you draw from the map?


Further Reading: