Allyson Carlyle remembered for generosity, dedication to students

Allyson Carlyle

Allyson Carlyle didn’t hesitate to speak her mind. So when she first read Ph.D. student Joe Tennis’ writing, the iSchool associate professor was blunt. “She said she was going to have to rewrite every word in my dissertation,” says Tennis, now a professor at the school.

She wanted shorter sentences, more direct statements, less high-falutin language and, above all, clarity. “She was very particular about accessibility. She wanted us to translate very complex concepts into clear English for a wide audience,” says Tennis.

Carlyle, a beloved member of the iSchool family and leading scholar in the field of cataloging, died unexpectedly on April 4. She had learned only a few days before that she had a brain tumor. “When Allyson called to tell me, her main concern was her remaining doctoral students. She didn’t want them to slip through the cracks in case she wasn’t able to complete the paperwork,” says iSchool Associate Professor Emeritus Cheryl Metoyer.

“That was typical of Allyson,” says Metoyer. “It was never about her, it was about what was best for students or the school, always.”

Carlyle — born in Detroit in February 1954 and raised in Montana — headed into academics after serving with the Peace Corps in Africa and working in libraries in Ohio, Washington and California. She earned her Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1994. She was, say colleagues, “a librarian with a capital L.”

Recruited to the iSchool in 1996, she oversaw its evolution from a library science school to a tech-savvy information school, taking a leadership role as the new school’s first Associate Dean for Academics. “I think she was part of the glue that held the iSchool together,” says David Levy, a professor at the school.

"She understood power, understood powerlessness, understood poverty and the implications of all those things in terms of higher education."

Longtime colleagues describe her keen intellect, integrity, passion for social justice and self-deprecatory humor. “She laughed at herself and at the ridiculousness of things. And sometimes ridiculous things happen in a scholarly community,” says Harry Bruce, professor emeritus/dean emeritus of the iSchool.

A serious student of Tibetan Buddhism, Carlyle had a quality of stillness and grace about her, say colleagues. Her calm presence made her a natural leader in faculty meetings. “She was a steadying voice when discussions became contentious,” says Bruce. “She was inclusive to all opinions; she made sure all voices were heard. She marshaled people back together.”

Above all, Carlyle was a caregiver. At home she took care of her elderly mother, worrying about her exposure to the coronavirus. On campus she took care of students. She made sure the iSchool’s Ph.D. students — all the Ph.D. students — got the guidance they needed. “She always took care to mentor and foster them — even if they weren’t hers,” says Tennis.

Her students describe her as a strong cheerleader. “She believed in me at times I wasn’t sure I could do it,” says Beth Patin, one of Carlyle’s last Ph.D. students. “Allyson would say, ‘This is 100 percent something you can do and we need to hear your voice.’ ”

Through Carlyle, Patin was beneficiary of a Washington Doctoral Initiative grant designed to increase minority leaders in library and information science. It was one of many grants Carlyle used over the years to pull historically underrepresented students into the school. “She was an activist and an advocate. She made things happen. She understood power, understood powerlessness, understood poverty and the implications of all those things in terms of higher education,” says Metoyer, who is an Eastern Band Cherokee and heads the school’s iNative research group.

Carlyle, who helped recruit Metoyer, was determined to bring native and indigenous voices to the school. She also worked closely with tribal libraries and established the Sherman Alexie and Lethene Parks Endowed Fellowship in Tribal and Rural Librarianship. The fellowship is accepting donations in her honor.

Allyson Carlyle on the water.
The outdoors were among Allyson Carlyle's passions.

Off-campus, Carlyle was master of many things. She loved hiking, birding, crocheting, reading mysteries and fantasies, and she was a wizard in the kitchen, baking divine breads and three-tier cakes and whipping up perfect souffles. She also created beautiful gardens full of sunflowers, hollyhocks, fox gloves, euphorbias. She had just started planting tomatoes and salad greens and was working on an arbor for grape vines, says her longtime companion Lisa Fusco, a retired iSchool senior lecturer.

No matter how busy Carlyle was, the iSchool came first, says Fusco. “She was a super-organized person and she always prioritized her academic work.”

Carlyle’s scholarly pursuits included descriptive cataloging, online catalogs, and classification theory — all with a focus on how to best serve users. For one research project, she parked herself inside a mall with boxes of books and videos and a wad of cash. She paid random shoppers to go through the boxes and sort items for her, in groupings that made sense to them. This kind of grounds-up research fed new ways of thinking in the field.

“She modernized research in cataloging,” says Tennis. “It was this idea that it’s not just about books, it’s about people, and making sure they can access this amazing treasury of knowledge.”

Carlyle officially retired from the iSchool in 2018, but continued working part-time, offering one cataloging class a year. The 66-year-old had just decided the next quarter would be her last. On the Friday before her death, she talked about her retirement with a lifelong friend in Greece, Jerome Poynton. She told him about the brain tumor and said: “I’m very happy. My Buddhist practice has prepared me for this.”

Those close to Carlyle have been celebrating her life in their own ways. Her Buddhist group is in the midst of 49 days of prayer in her honor. Friends at the school set up a tribute website with a guestbook for reflections.

And in tribute to their treasured colleague, iSchool faculty members joined in five minutes’ meditative silence at their first meeting after her death. Professor Levy ended the silence with a poem by Laura Gilpin that begins: “These things I know:/How the living go on living/and how the dead go on living with them.”