Life After Smith: Vanilla Bean History and Russian Literature

Mia Council '16 Features Editor

Maria Rao ’99 returned to Smith as a librarian in Neilson. We sat down with her to  learn more about this former Smithie. 

How long have you been working at Neilson?

A little over three years.

What were you doing before?

For six years I was the comptroller over at Fly by Night, so I handled their money. And before that I was at library school at Dominican University. And before that I was paid to read newspapers.

What? How does that work?

Various organizations would pay us to look for certain topics in the media and then cut the articles out and send them over. Very pre-Internet.

What’s your favorite thing about working in Neilson?

I love working in an environment where everyone here is so excited about learning and books and education. And I love the serendipity – you find such cool, obscure things. There’s a whole textbook that exists on the history of the vanilla bean.

What’s your favorite finding?

There’s a journal upstairs called the Gentlemen’s Magazine, from the 1700s. It’s so cool to hold something in your hands that was printed in 1790. You wouldn’t find that anywhere else. There’s a lot of weird, obscure stuff here. And I think that’s great.

What’s the most challenging part of working at Neilson?

No matter what you’re doing, you have to be able to drop it to help the patron – and then remember to pick it back up again.

Where are you from?

I was born in New Hampshire but spent my formative years in Chicago. I went to undergrad here at Smith and I actually worked in the library as a student.

What did you study at Smith?

I was an English literature and medieval studies double major. I got to study dead languages, which is called necrophilology. I like Northampton much more now than I did as an undergrad. It has great access to mountains and nature, and then you can still walk down the street to buy sushi.

What did you study at library school [Dominican University in Chicago]?

The whole world of librarianship gets pretty specialized. I did cataloguing and metadata.

Why cataloguing and metadata?

Because it’s really hard. It’s super detail-oriented and obscure. Where you class a book – where you put it in the collection – depends where the patrons will find it and which other books it will be around and related to.

What’s your favorite thing about your life?

That’s tough. I have the opportunity to learn about things that I really enjoy. I take classes at Smith every semester. I have time to cook, which is great, although I did splash boiling water all over my face last week. It was a canning incident. I take Russian literature and language classes – I’m particularly interested in 19th century Russian literature. I’ve taken two years of Russian plus a summer intensive class, but I still think I speak Russian at the level of a three-year-old.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Oh, boy. I have no idea. I could still be working at the library, or I could be back in grad school studying Russian literature or I could be doing pottery.

What’s your favorite book?

I think my favorite book is “All the Names” by José Saramago.