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Head and shoulders color portait of a woman with red hair, wearing glasses, smiling at the camera.
Monica Smith. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Working with Young Readers: Monica Smith

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Monica Smith is chief of the Informal Learning Office.

Tell us about your background.

I’m a native Californian. I grew up in San Diego with my teacher parents and sister, earned a bachelor’s degree in American history at Pomona College, then worked briefly in San Francisco before moving to Washington, D.C.

A high school internship at the San Diego History Center’s Research Archives inspired me to pursue four more internships through and just after college, ending with the Smithsonian Institution. In 1995, I began my career at the National Museum of American History’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Starting as a researcher, I became an exhibition curator, an educator, a project director and, finally, acting deputy director of the center. I transitioned to the Library in December 2023.

What brought you to the Library, and what do you do?

After three decades at the Smithsonian, I was ready for a career move, and the Library was about the only place I could think of that would be a step up. Fortunately, the position of chief of the Informal Learning Office felt like the perfect fit for my interests, skills and experience.

It’s a thrill to work in the nation’s library to help engage, educate and inspire the next generation of researchers and their families. I enjoy overseeing the team spearheading ILO’s new monthly Family Days at the Library featuring creative hands-on activities with related take-home resources based on Library collections.

ILO also runs the Young Readers Center and Programs Lab in the Jefferson Building; writes the blog Minerva’s Kaleidoscope for families and educators; hosts or co-hosts internships, including for teens; and pilots on-site and online school programs as we gear up for the opening of The Source: A Creative Research Studio for Kids, part of the visitor experience, in 2026.

My overall goal is to raise the profile of the Library’s programs and resources among more, and more diverse, youth and families.

What are some of your standout projects?

At the Smithsonian I was proud to be the project director, co-curator and principal investigator for three National Science Foundation-funded exhibition projects, “Invention at Play,” “Places of Invention” and “Change Your Game/Cambia tu juego,” which opens at the National Museum of American History on March 15.

Among my friends, however, I’m best known for being the curator of an exhibition about the invention of the electric guitar early in my career. I gave numerous presentations about it, wrote articles and was a featured speaker in the film “Electrified: The Guitar Revolution.” I was also interviewed on BBC, CNN and other media outlets, including a local news broadcast honoring Prince after his death. My first project nickname “Stratocaster Woman” evolved into “Monicaster,” a name I’m still called by former colleagues.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

My main passion — besides spending quality time with family and friends, reading, baking and volunteering — is most certainly travel. I’m on a quest to visit as many countries as my age; currently, I’m a couple ahead at 55.

Just since 2019, I’ve been to Bali, Belgium, Costa Rica, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro, Qatar, Singapore, Switzerland and Turkey. Overall, my favorite trip was probably to the Galápagos Islands with Egypt and Tanzania close behind.

I’ve also loved touring all 50 U.S. states. If you come to my office in the Madison Building, you’ll see a world map on the wall with pins showing where I’ve been. It inspires me to think about where I want to travel next and maybe spend more time in retirement.

What is something your co-workers may not know about you?

I attended a public school in San Diego for the creative and performing arts. It was an amazing experience to be part of a very racially and economically diverse student body with kids from across the city. It didn’t matter your age, background or even talent: You could participate in any art that interested you.

I focused on playing the violin, singing in choir and taking ballet, but I also dipped my toes into dramatic acting, musicals and all kinds of dance. I also loved academics, especially history and English.

The experience helped build my self-confidence, providing tools I still use for giving public speeches or even just meeting new people. It also instilled in me a lifelong love and appreciation for the arts and for youth education.

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