Pathfinder Randall Studstill: Making Community Connections

Librarian Randall Studstill began his journey to librarianship with aspirations to become a college professor in religious studies.

After obtaining his doctorate in religious studies, he found that teaching at a college level just wasn't his thing!

If you search on the San José State University's OneSearch, you will find his dissertation, The Unity of Mystical Traditions: the Transformation of Consciousness in Tibetan and German Mysticism.

Luckily for San José Public Library, he decided to pursue his librarianship degree.  He says that he loves being a librarian and is glad that he made the change!

After obtaining his librarianship degree, he began his important work at San José Public Library!

Libraries Transforming Communities Initiative

When Randall started at the Seven Trees Library, he was a part of a team assigned the task of running the American Library Association’s Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) initiative in April 2014.  Only 10 libraries won this Grant, which included sending the winning teams to Denver, Colorado's Harwood Institute for training.

Randall tells me, "San José's Seven Trees neighborhood was an ideal location for this initiative considering the significant challenges faced by Seven Trees residents."  According to the LTC website:

"Known as the “Capital of Silicon Valley,” San Jose is often associated with affluence: households in the city have the highest average disposable income of any major U.S. city. But that wealth — and the inflated cost of living that accompanies it — wallops low-income residents, many of whom are immigrants lacking formal education and English language skills. The Seven Trees community is home to many of these low-income residents: nearly half of the community’s residents are immigrants, largely people from Mexico and Vietnam, and more than one-third of the population lacks a high school diploma. Gang activity is a significant concern." (

Other members of San José's LTCI team included: Policy and Organizing Program Director Priya Murthy (Services, Immigration Rights, and Education Network), Recreation Supervisor Kiersten McCormick, Senior Librarian Michelle Amores, and Division Manager for Literacy and Learning Angie Miraflor. The starting point for the Harwood Institute's approach to community engagement is an attitude of being "turned outward."

Randall elaborated this way:

"The Seven Trees Branch, our partners and many other dedicated individuals and groups are already making a difference. But these problems can’t be solved without strong, wide-ranging community engagement and the combined, coordinated effort of residents, organizations, businesses and other stakeholders." (

But how did Randall first implement this program?

Implementing a Community Program

According to the Harwood Institute, the starting point for bringing about positive community change is an authentic understanding of a community. This authentic understanding is gained through talking with residents, primarily during a series of Community Conversations where residents have a chance to describe their ideal community as well as the problems they face in their community.

Randall clarifies, "The basic idea is to get to know what the community thinks by getting to know them.  Find out what they care about, and they will appreciate that you took the time to get to know what they are concerned about."

The two primary issues emerged through Community Conversations with Seven Trees residents:

  • Garbage in the neighborhood
  • Dangerous speeding on residential streets.

Randall tells me about the results of his team's intervention and the birth of a new community program:

"After discussions with City officials, speeding proved to be too large and complicated a problem for the team to solve. However, garbage was a different matter. By teaming up with the Seven Trees Neighborhood Association and District 7 officials, the LTCI team was able to plan several neighborhood garbage pick-up events. The events made a noticeable improvement in the appearance of the neighborhood.

The practices started at Seven Trees were implemented systemwide, as all SJPL branches began to host their own community conversations. These conversations become virtual with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the summer of 2022, SJPL administration placed a renewed emphasis on community outreach as a strategic priority. Given this emphasis on outreach, it made sense to incorporate community engagement into library outreach efforts. Librarians shifted away from community conversations to using outreach as an opportunity to gather information from community residents. Four questions were adopted as a means of eliciting the most useful information from residents about their concerns. Together, these questions are called the four ASK questions."

Four ASK Questions Survey

You may have noticed a display at your Library asking for input on four questions.

Harwood Institute's ASK tool is the inspiration for the Four ASK Questions Survey.  The first three questions are:

  1. What kind of community do you want to live in?
  2. How is that different from what you see now?
  3. How could the library help create the kind of community you want? (If you have ideas or suggestions for specific library programs or services, please include them here.)

According to Randall, the fourth question "is optional and may be tailored to a specific community and/or branch."

Here are some examples:

  • Any (additional) concerns about the community?
  • Any concerns about the library?
  • How might the library best serve the community?
  • What are your favorite programs and/or services provided by the library?

For instance, in my Library, we use the question, "How might the library best serve the community?"

Randall explains, "Librarians have different options for how best to use the ASK questions at an outreach event. They might, for example, post the questions on a poster and invite community members to anonymously respond using Post-It notes. They might use paper and/or online surveys or engage community members through one-on-one conversations. Regardless of method, the goal is the same: to learn from community residents and use that information to guide library programming."

Here is the verbiage on survey he shared with me:

"We want to hear from you!  Please complete this survey to help us better understand community needs and concerns. The information we gather may help us plan library programs and services and/or work with city officials and community organizations to take action in the community. Your responses are completely anonymous unless you elect to provide your name and contact information at the end of the survey. If you do provide your name, your responses will remain anonymous in any publicly accessible library communication.

The survey has 3 questions, with a 4th, optional opportunity to express any additional concerns or comments you may have. You may respond as briefly or as thoroughly as you would like (of course, we are hoping for more information rather than less). Whether your responses are brief or not, we appreciate your input!"

If you have any comments or questions, please let me know in the Comments section below!