Student Ruth Bender Applies Coursework to Her School Library Job in Japan
Ruth Bender

Student Ruth Bender seems to thrive on adventure, whether it’s living overseas or pursuing a graduate degree online from a university halfway around the world.

Bender works as the high school library circulation supervisor at The American School in Japan (ASIJ), a pre-K through 12th-grade private international school in Tokyo that’s been serving its students for 112 years. She started work in ASIJ’s elementary school library 16 years ago, and in 2010, accepted a position in the high school library to broaden her skills. 

“I am so glad that I did,” she said. “I find high school students delightfully interesting and supporting the information literacy and research challenges of young adults in a highly academic high school setting to be absorbing and important work.” 

Living so far from San José State University has posed no obstacle, Bender said. She’s been able to easily find classes that fit her schedule, and work around time zone differences for real-time sessions such as lectures or group work. Her co-workers are very supportive of her studies, which makes it easier to get time off when needed, “particularly since my coursework results in many spin-off benefits for my school library.”

“And, yes, I have on several occasions attended virtual late-night sessions in my pajamas, but this is not something I would ever complain about,” she quipped, adding, “I believe that the MLIS program’s online delivery method is a smoothly oiled machine that has worked just as well for me over here in Japan as it has for any student more conveniently situated in California.”

Bender and her husband moved to Japan more than 25 years ago from Des Moines, Iowa, when he was hired as ASIJ’s elementary school principal. She earned both a bachelor’s in economics and a master’s in agricultural economics, with an emphasis in environmental issues, at Iowa State University. She worked for the state government on economic forecasting and agricultural and environmental department budgets and legislation. Later, she served as administrator of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Waste Management Division.

In 2008, Bender and a co-worker decided to return to graduate school to get the certification needed to become librarians. “But we thought of it as a bit of an adventure as well,” she said. Living overseas, they needed a program that was fully online. At that time, SJSU’s Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program was one of the few such programs offered.

Bender started the MLIS program in fall 2008, and will graduate in spring 2015. She takes one course each semester, with summers off, and finds that concentrating on one course at a time proves beneficial both in her coursework and on the job.

“Every course I have taken has paid dividends at my library,” she said. “From very early on in this program, I have been able to tailor course assignments to simultaneously meet some authentic need at my high school library.”

For instance, in fall 2013, Dr. Michelle Simmons’ LIBR 228 Advanced Information Resources and Services course “offered a wonderful chance to play in the LibGuides sandbox,” Bender said. For an assignment, she created a LibGuide called the AP Environmental Science Research Guide to support a new yearlong research project for ASIJ’s Advanced Placement Environmental Science course. The high school library piloted the LibGuide starting in January 2014 after a month-long trial with LibGuides.

“As a result of the pilot project,” Bender said, “we secured budget approval for a LibGuide subscription, and we are now fully committed to that more unifying and nimble platform for research support in the future.”

During the spring 2014 term, she took Meredith Farkas’ LIBR 220 Embedded Librarians/Embedded Libraries course, where she expanded her LibGuide exploration to a user needs assessment. After creating a new LibGuide, Modern World History - Revolutionary Movements, for a history research project, she used the analytics within LibGuides and a citation analysis approach to conduct a user needs assessment. “For my high school, this represents a first attempt at a more formal assessment of our research instruction,” Bender explained. “I am currently expanding and refining this method for other major research projects at our high school.”

In spring 2013, she was a research assistant for Dr. Virginia Tucker on the topic of online search expertise. She had taken Tucker’s LIBR 244 Online Searching course, and applying the skills she learned in the course, Bender conducted searches on the topics of aptitudes, skills and behaviors of expert and novice searchers. Coincidentally, she found that her work met the need of ASIJ’s instructional technology coach for current research on technology integration and teacher belief.

And Bender’s experience in LIBR 281 Transformative Learning and Technology Literacies with Dr. Michael Stephens took an unexpected twist when an adaptation of the SLISConnect “23 Things” project that she built as part of a team for the course turned out to be for ASIJ’s library support staff. “Unbeknownst to me, Michael Stephens was in contact with an ASIJ librarian who had offered ASIJ as one of the sites to choose from for this very real-world assignment to build online learning modules for a library’s professional development,” Bender said.

Bender has focused both her work at ASIJ and her MLIS coursework on online information literacy support for young adults, “particularly as they develop the information seeking and research skills necessary for academia and life beyond,” she said. “I am deeply committed to the embedded librarian model, and am interested in finding a position at the high school or undergraduate level as an embedded librarian that would utilize my skills in information literacy instruction and the research process.”

Influential Class & Instructor

“[In addition to the ones already mentioned,] I would highly recommend LIBR 298 Peer Mentoring with Debbie Faires. Peer mentors usher incoming MLIS students through their initial LIBR 203 Online Learning course. Peer mentoring was perhaps my most intense learning experience. Faires guides peer mentors through a remarkably scaffolded course that is basically fieldwork in online instruction. It is unbelievably satisfying and collegial.”

Career Tips

“Be a student while helping students. I believe my coursework instills two qualities that improve my usefulness and responsiveness to the students that I serve: a continually updating skill set and the empathy of a fellow student in today’s learning landscape.

“Revel in online learning. Immersing myself in the well-structured online learning environment that SLIS offers has ramped up my technology skills throughout my career in ASIJ’s high school library and increased the ways in which my library extends our face-to-face service to our community to a more effective 24/7 delivery model.

“Make your course assignments do double-duty by tailoring them to meet authentic needs in your work environment. This requires a little effort on the front end. I read course assignments carefully, craft a proposal of my assignment “tweak” and run it past my professor to gain approval in advance. In every case, I have found professors to be enthusiastically supportive of, and excellent mentors for, assignments that have a real-world afterlife.”

Tech Tips

“As an MLIS student, the instant messaging tool BB IM has been the most powerful way I know for getting and giving help and staying in touch with fellow students and professors. I encourage all students and faculty to have that as a ready presence on their dashboard. In addition, I have enjoyed the chance, through peer mentoring and a special project in LIBR 220 to work behind the veil of online learning management software such as D2L. This has been a very useful and transferrable skill to my work environment.”

Professional Affiliations

American Library Association (ALA); International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)

Best Conferences

“I have enjoyed the chances to take part in Library 2.0 Virtual Conferences. Their archived recordings are especially accommodating of different schedules and time zones. I frequently tap into the SLIS Colloquia, again because I can virtually attend at my convenience.”

Favorite Blogs or Websites

“I developed a Personal Learning Network in LIBR 281. I track an eclectic mix of blogs through Twitter and NetVibes, including Hack Library School, In the Library With a Leadpipe, and anything by Barbara Fister. I am an avid user of scholarly journal feeds and I establish custom search feeds within databases to track topics that have been research interests for me.”