Mary Mahoney

Mary Mahoney

Mary Mahoney (ΦBK, Trinity College) is a historian of bibliotherapy, or the use of books as medicine, currently working as the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at Trinity College. Mahoney creates audio stories, podcasts, and works with museums and archives to produce both physical and digital exhibits. She also co-hosts the podcast American Girls, which relives the American Girls series book by book, and has been featured in the New York Times.


As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

My mom is a librarian, and my brothers and I would sometimes go to work with her and get to hang out and wander the stacks. I remember leaving the children’s section to explore non-fiction and discovering books on archaeology. This led to a brief - but impassioned - foray into Egyptology that evolved into a lifelong interest in history. 

What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education? 

I took an introductory American history survey class during the first semester of my first year of college with historian Jack Chatfield. I’d taken U.S. History in high school and thought - mistakenly- that we’d be covering a lot of familiar territory. Jack Chatfield's enthusiasm made everyone in the room care about what he was teaching even if they weren’t overly interested in history. Dismantling the notion that history is a series of dates and facts to be memorized, he instead told stories that made issues and events in the past feel urgent to the present. These stories helped us think with events in the past as a way of understanding how people in another time ordered their worlds and their places within it. This process, of using history as a way of knowing, is something I’ve valued ever since. 

You are a historian of bibliotherapy, currently working as the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at Trinity College. What is bibliotherapy and how would you describe the work you do? What is your favorite part about your job?

Bibliotherapy is the use of books as medicine. It is having something of a resurgence now with some really exciting examples of great programs: one school has a group that offers students therapeutic reading experiences to supplement treatment for grief and trauma; one reading group comprised of veterans reads the Odyssey and the Iliad to find meaning in the experience of war; one government program in the UK suggests physicians write literary prescriptions for their patients to pick up at their local public libraries, and, in some cases, private consultants prescribe from their bookshelves for a fee. I am currently writing a history of this practice in the United States and am creating methods of engaging the public directly. I’ve created a digital exhibit, and have also started a community teaching program in public libraries where I present case studies in this history with writing exercises that invite students to reflect on their own histories as readers. 

In my postdoctoral fellowship at Trinity, I help faculty and students create digital scholarship. This work invites me to draw on my own interest in digital exhibits, podcasting, etc. to create publicly-engaging work.  In my personal research, community teaching, and work at Trinity, I get to pursue an interest in public humanities and storytelling that is vital to my practice as a historian. Telling accessible stories about bibliotherapy, helping readers tell stories about their own lives, and helping faculty and students tell stories about their research are my favorite parts of my job. 

How has your liberal arts education helped you in your career? Why do you think a well-rounded arts and sciences education is important in today’s society? 

The liberal arts education I received at Trinity College helped me develop a practice, not a profession. I learned how to think with English and history by reading texts and processing ideas I encountered in these disciplines in the form of argument and interpretation. This work helped me to understand the world and my place within it and positioned me as someone who could apply those same skills to whatever I pursued professionally. Since graduation, I have worked in public history, higher education, and podcasting. I use the same ability to take in information and offer my own interpretations and arguments as to its meaning and importance in all three worlds. A focus on the ability to think without a strict focus on professional training has been particularly important to me as I’ve moved into podcasting, a profession that did not exist when I was in college. 

You currently co-host the podcast “American Girls,” which relives the American Girl series, book by book. How did this podcast come about, and what drew you to this subject?

This podcast is born out of my friendship with my best friend and fellow historian Allison Horrocks. We both attended the same Ph.D. program in history at the University of Connecticut where we bonded over the American Girl series as a shared childhood interest. We wanted to do a project on American Girl because we noted it had been so influential to women of our generation who have pursued careers in history and in so many fields that require the kind of independence and intellect the books celebrate in the lives of girls in an imagined American past. After we finished graduate school, we settled on a podcast that would discuss one book in the series per episode. We each bring special knowledge to the show. I had just started working in community radio and podcasting, so I was looking for a venue to share my appreciation for histories of reading via sound. Allison has expert knowledge of material culture and public history interpretation from years of museum experience in addition to her current work as a park ranger at the national park in Lowell, Massachusetts. We wanted each episode to feel like a hangout with friends that puts the contents of these important books from our childhood in conversation with American history and pop culture we’re both loving at the moment. The feedback to our show, and the response to our sincere appreciation for and celebration of friendship - a theme across the series - has been a really overwhelming and heartening surprise. 

As a person who thinks about the intersection between reading and therapy, do you have suggestions for literature that addresses some of today’s common stresses and anxieties? Do you have any particular advice for recent graduates and young Phi Beta Kappa members?

I think part of what I’ve learned from studying the history of bibliotherapy is that early attempts to prescribe reading have almost always failed in the face of the rebelliousness of readers. When librarians serving in World War I wanted to prescribe westerns, for example, assuming the genre was what men liked, they were stunned to find men preferred to read romances. With this in mind, I would first recommend making time for reading itself, no matter the genre. I trust readers to know their likes/dislikes, and I think there’s something to be said for stumbling into some work of fiction and finding a line or two that speaks to a person’s current situation in completely unexpected ways. As W.H. Auden once wrote, “It is not so much I read a book as that the book reads me.” For suggestions, I would explore the prescriptions offered by visitors to my digital exhibit which include comics, histories, memoirs, novels, self-help books, and more. I would also explore some of the projects cited above for books vetted by counselors and medical professionals. 

What is your favorite cultural excursion or experience in your city?

I love visiting the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT which has in its collection Outside the Principal’s Office by Norman Rockwell. Though painted in 1953 and based on an entirely fictional scenario, it has always felt like a fairly accurate self-portrait. 

What books are you currently reading, or what podcasts do you like to recommend?

I recently read and loved Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino which offers essays on topics as various as her teenaged foray into reality tv and reflections on the effects of internet culture. I also want to recommend a new podcast called Dolly Parton’s America produced by WNYC. I am a huge Dolly Parton fan and will take in any and all Dolly content I can find.