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WRI 198/199: Apocalypse How?: Finding, Using, and Evaluating Images

Searching for and using images in your research

We are frequently presented with images as passive illustrations or as novelties breaking up blocks of text, but in the study of history and the built environment (and many other topics as well!), it is important to regard images as objects for active investigation. Images provide unique information that simply cannot be communicated through other means.

When searching for images, it is important to consider your search terms and objectives in a similar manner as you would when searching for textual material. Once you have a sense of what you are looking for, you will have a better sense of where to look for images. 

There are three general categories of places where you will find images.

1. Where images are produced - image creators such as architects, artists, photographers, other creators

2. Where images are reproduced - publications and publishers such as journals, newspapers, books

3. Where images are collected - repositories such as archives, libraries, websites, museums, and other repositories

Many of these locations will overlap, and you will find that some of these locations will be more useful for you than others, depending on the focus of your research.

Image sources in the built environment

City-Specific Resources

Tips for Evaluating Images

In the study of the built environment, it is important to shift your thinking about images from regarding images as illustrations to considering them as objects for investigation. Interrogate the images you look for and find, and carefully consider what each image communicates and the information that the image provides -- as well as what the image omits.

It is important to search thoughtfully for images, and to evaluate images critically, much in the same way you would search for and critically evaluate textual resources. Images should be evaluated like any other source, such as journal articles or books, to determine their quality, reliability, and appropriateness.

Images: Evaluating Images                                                                

Visual analysis is an important step in evaluating an image and understanding its meaning. It is also important to consider textual information provided with the image, the image source and original context of the image, and the technical quality of the image.

The following questions can help guide your analysis and evaluation.

Content analysis 

  • What do you see?
  • What is the image about?
  • Are there people in the image? What are they doing? How are they presented?
  • Can the image be looked at different ways?
  • How effective is the image as a visual message?

Visual analysis

  • How is the image composed? What is in the background, and what is in the foreground?
  • What view is being framed by the image? Can you determine what has been cropped out of the frame?
  • What are the most important visual elements in the image? How can you tell?
  • How is color used?
  • Can the image be looked at different ways?
  • What meanings are conveyed by design choices?

Contextual information

  • What information accompanies the image?
  • Does the text change how you see the image? How?
  • Is the textual information intended to be factual and inform, or is it intended to influence what and how you see?
  • What kind of context does the information provide? Does it answer the questions of Where, How, Why, and For whom was the image made?

Image source

  • Where did you find the image?
  • What information does the source provide about the origins of the image?
  • Is the source reliable and trustworthy?
  • Was the image found in an image database, or was it being used in another context to convey meaning?

Technical quality

  • Is the image large enough to suit your purposes?
  • Are the color, light, and balance true?
  • Is the image a quality digital image, without pixelation or distortion?
  • Is the image in a file format you can use?
  • Are there copyright or other use restrictions you need to consider?


[questions based on]

General Image and Media Resources