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Celebrating Kathy Allen

By Katie Miller

A headshot of Kathy AllenTwice per day for the past 14 years, librarian Kathy Allen has made the 50-mile commute to and from the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, Minnesota. In her role as Librarian of the Andersen Horticultural Library (AHL), she’s been in charge of everything from collection development to program coordination to helping users track down plants — not to mention maintaining a seamless relationship between AHL and the Arboretum, its scenic home.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Allen is often so busy that — with the exception of solitary walks on the Arboretum grounds after the workday is done — she hardly has time to step outside. “I never leave my desk,” Allen laughs.

Though Allen’s tenure as AHL Librarian began in 2008, her time at the University Libraries stretches back even further — and as her colleagues can attest, her impact cannot be overstated. Allen’s final day at the Libraries is May 9, 2023. In honor of her retirement, we invite you to get to know Kathy, and to celebrate her remarkable 27-year career with the Libraries.

A sculpture and walking paths at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Path to librarianship

After receiving her undergraduate degree in modern languages — Chinese, Russian, and German — with a minor in botany, Allen found herself in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t know what to do with my degree,” she recalls. “But there was the Library of Congress, who could use people knowing all of these languages. That’s when I decided I would get my degree in library science.”

From there, Allen says, everything lined itself up: a job with a library school professor led to a one-year job offer from the Department of Agriculture Library System in Malawi, Africa. One year blossomed into eight, as Allen was promoted from cataloger to become the director of all seven agricultural libraries in the country.

After Allen’s time in Malawi drew to a close and she returned to the United States, she was hired to be the Plant Sciences Librarian at Magrath Library (then still called St. Paul Central Library) in 1996. She spent 12 years in this role, during which time she worked closely with Richard Isaacson, then the AHL Librarian — a role she would go on to assume in the fall of 2008, and has held ever since.

A labor of love

Among the many projects that Allen has participated in during her time at the Libraries, Plant Information Online stands out as one of the most impactful — not only for Allen, but also for botanists, horticulturalists, and plant and gardening enthusiasts everywhere. Plant Information Online provides users access to sourcing information for nearly 80,000 different plants and where these plants can be found at nursery and seed banks across North America.

Allen describes her role as indexer and coordinator for Plant Information Online as nothing short of a “labor of love.” Shortly after beginning her role as Plant Sciences Librarian at Magrath, Isaacson asked if she would be interested in helping him compile and edit the index, which in its nascency was still entirely in print. “He said, ‘think about it — and if you agree, you have to commit to doing it for the rest of your life,’” Kathy recalls, her warm laugh a small and inviting portal back in time.

Though the project was retired in 2021, its archives are still accessible at Allen notes that she still encounters visitors from all over who make a point to tell her how much they relied on the index to track down plants.

Additionally, Allen was instrumental in the establishment of Flora & Fauna Illustrata (FFI), a joint Arboretum-AHL project that aims to document in scientifically-accurate fine art all of the plant and animal species living at the Arboretum. “We call it our 100-year project — or sometimes the 500-year project,” Allen says. There are currently over 100 artworks in the permanent FFI collection, but Allen estimates that the Arboretum is home to at least 6,000-7,000 species — which means there is still ample room for the collection to grow.

Allen worked with the Libraries’ Digital Library Services on FFI, which continues to digitize and add new works to its collection on UMedia, a digital library free and available to all users. Interested readers are also encouraged to check out this interactive digital exhibit and to watch a brief exhibit preview video below.

The wonderful world of botanical books and people

Throughout Allen’s tenure at AHL, the library has grown in more ways than one: compared to when she began in 2008, AHL regularly receives more visitors, not to mention increased local and state-wide attention. Their collections have continued to expand, too. Art, books, rare books — “we just keep getting more,” Allen says. “Except for space.” Take, for example, their Historic Seed & Nursery Catalog Collection — at over 78,000 items, it is the third-largest in the nation. Over 900 of these items can currently be viewed online through UMedia.

Five vintage postcards featuring anthropomorphic vegetables and fun sayings like, "Mrs. Big Onion - you are so small you make me weep."

The AHL Historic Seed & Nursery Catalog Collection recently expanded to include a new sub-collection of “veggie people.”

“AHL is a truly magical place, combining the artifactual or ‘real’ like the amazing Nakashima furniture and gorgeous illustrated tomes in the vault, with the centuries of scientific knowledge recorded in those books,” says colleague Scott Marsalis, Social Sciences Librarian & Interim Director of Sciences, Agriculture & Engineering at the Libraries. “Kathy has dedicated her years of service to continuing the legacy of those collections.”

Chairs arranged in a circle overlooking a window at Andersen Horticultural Library

Andersen Horticultural Library, December 2018.

Alongside her material contributions, Allen’s time at the Libraries has also been marked by the profound influence she’s had on others. Kristen Mastel notes that Allen has been a “wonderful mentor” to her since the day Mastel started at Magrath Library. “I learned then walking around campus her love of plants and people. … She has introduced me to the wonderful world of botanical books and people, for which I am ever so grateful.”

Similarly, Marsalis emphasizes that “Kathy’s real gift is her ability to share her love for plants and books, and ability to relate and connect with so many people. Kathy has such enthusiasm and passion for her work, and an ability to infect others with that enthusiasm.”

Natural Resources Librarian Philip Herold, who has worked with Kathy since 2003, also underscores Kathy’s tireless work ethic and boundless enthusiasm. “Kathy possesses so many wonderful traits: she is deeply knowledgeable about plants, wildlife, and the natural world. And she has shared that knowledge so freely — most people just getting a glimpse of her expertise, but the longer one works with her, the more one realizes how deep her knowledge runs. … Kathy is always gracious, ever welcoming, thoughtful and kind, and a consummate ambassador for the Libraries and the Arboretum.”

After retirement, Kathy will be returning to the Catskills in upstate New York, where she looks forward to the opportunity to reconnect with wildflowers and trees long familiar but not native to Minnesota.

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Lee Anne Laskey says:

    Wishing you a beautiful next chapter !
    I’m so happy for you. Thank you for your genuine kindness and caring mentorship during my time at the library.
    Best wishes!
    Lee Anne Laskey

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