The Skinny on Cruise Ship Librarianship

by Rebecca Vogler, Head Editor, INALJ Nevada

The Skinny on Cruise Ship Librarianship

rebeccavoglerIf you’ve been around INALJ.com since the beginning of last year, you may remember a couple of Success Stories that were written about newly minted MLIS graduates going to work as a cruise ship librarian.  One was written about me.  That article, plus a couple of comments on LinkedIn, brought me in contact with far more people who were interested in cruise ship librarianship than I ever imagined.  For many, it’s a dream job!  So many romanticize the position (and, yes, it does have its perks), but I also wanted to give a truthful account of what work on a cruise ship really is like.  Here are the 10 things you didn’t know about being a cruise ship librarian.

1.     You are an officer on a ship.

That means you are responsible to attend all drills.  Some drills just last a few minutes and only entail gathering in one location with other people in your team to time how fast you get there, respond to whatever instructions are given, and then you’re let go.  Some are a lot longer, and involve getting your life vest and gathering at your life raft station on the outside decks.  You’re also expected to give all respect to the captain and other higher-up officers.  When they say jump, you ask how high!  It’s a little like being a real navy.  You’re on a ship, in the middle of the ocean, so knowing what to do in an emergency is paramount.  This can cut into fun time since most drills occur when the ship is docked, so know your drill schedule and make sure you don’t leave the ship until it’s over.

2.     You have a Master’s Degree?  No one cares!

The cruise line I worked for is one of only two that I know of that employs full time librarians.  Up until recently, they often employed someone in the entertainment cast or an officer’s wife to run the library.  Now that they have started hiring more of us professional librarians, their solution is to put the librarian in a room with another employee (often someone in the youth department).  The issue I had with this is that other people on my team (the DJ, the Travel Guide, the Piano Bar guy, the Lifestylist, et cetera) all had their own room, which was often twice the size of the one I shared.  Speaking of which….

3.     Pray your roommate doesn’t snore

You share a teeny little room with bunk beds and a bathroom no bigger than a closet.  My room constantly had issues with the toilet not flushing correctly, but I heard of my neighboring co-workers with problems ranging from no heat, no air, and no hot water as well.  Granted, my ship was the oldest in the fleet, so maybe those who are lucky enough to get contracts are newer ships didn’t have that issue.

4.     Cruise ships are still stuck in 1996

Cruise ships use satellite communications to provide internet access, which means when you’re out in the middle of the ocean, the internet is slower than dial-up.  Often, the internet will go down for minutes, hours, sometimes even a couple of days.  It’s also freaking expensive for guests and employees to access.  As an employee you do get 200 minutes for $40, but it costs around $100 for the same amount of minutes for guests.  If a guest does not a computer onboard, he or she can use ones provided in the library.  Therefore, get ready to have to deal with tons of guests coming to you to complain about the speed, the price, or both.  Luckily, each ship also has an internet manager who is based in the library, so you can always refer the guest to the internet manager.  However, I hear rumors that my company may be getting rid of internet managers, which will leave all of the work to the librarian.

5.     Apparently, librarians know everything

As the librarian, you are often seen as the most knowledgeable person on the ship.  Despite having a future cruise consultant, a travel guide, a person trained to teach guests computer know-how, and concierges, guests will make a beeline to you to ask you every question under the sun about ships, travel destinations, and every trivial piece of information known to man.  They assume you either immediately know the answer, can look it up on the internet, or have a book that answers the question.  You don’t.  There’s no encyclopedia set.  Your computer only has e-mail and company intranet access, no free access to the outside interwebs.  No Wikipedia to save you.

6.     There’s a reason why returning cruise ship librarians end up sleeping for a week straight after a contract

You will work every single day with not one day off for 6 months straight, unless you’re lucky enough to get the norovirus, gastrointestinal illness, or just present the symptoms of the sort.  Then you’ll get to spend at least 24-48 hours in isolation while your library becomes ransacked.  Coming back to a million books checked in and piled up in your storage closet is a whole lot of NO FUN.

7.     Love libraries?  That’s good because it’s going to be your home for the next six months.

Each day involves showing up at your library about 10-15 minutes before 8:00AM to open up the library, put out puzzles and quizzes, fold the newspaper sheets, and check in anything dropped in the return box.  You close the library up at 10:00PM.  Generally you get a couple of hours off at lunch and a couple off at dinner.  This means a 10 hour work day on days your ship is at sea, and 6-8 hour work days on days your ship is in port.  How many hours you work when you are in port is often determined by your immediate boss on the ship.  Some are slave drivers and almost never allow you enough time to have much fun while in port.  Others are more relaxed, which means me to the next point…

8.     Everybody leaves

Don’t get used to anybody you work with or for, because everyone leaves.  My first immediate supervisor when I came aboard at the beginning of my contract was not the sort of person I usually get along with, but I stuck with it because I found out right away that she was only going to be there my first two months.  After she left, I got an amazing boss whom I loved to death.  Everyone on ships work contracts.  Some are as short as 2-3 months long.  Others are as long as 10 months.  The people who you will meet and grow to love will leave you with lots of crying and hugging and sad good-byes.  Others will leave and you’ll feel like throwing a party AFTER they’ve left.  Unlike real life, where you may be stuck with a bad boss for years and years, that’s never the case on a ship.  Even captains rotate every 3 months.

9.     Must love people

If you are an introverted librarian, don’t even bother applying for the job.  You are expected to be a social butterfly on the ship.  At least once a week there’s some sort of party for the guests you’re expected to attend.  You’re also expected to dress formally twice a week, so make sure you bring some nice suits and dresses.  Another rule is to smile and nod when a guest is ten feet away and offer a greeting to any guest you see that’s five feet away.  So, when you live on Deck 3 and your library is on Deck 8, and you’re hurrying to get to the library to open it up in the morning, you’ll be power walking through the casino saying “Good morning” to everyone you pass.  When you get off ships, you’ll still find yourself saying “Good day” to everyone you pass, even on the sidewalk, for weeks and months afterwards.

10.                        Get used to the lingo of the seas

To this day, long after leaving ship life, when giving directions to a patron where I work now, I find myself still saying “That’s up on Deck 3.”  Learn the difference between port, aft, forward, and starboard.  Also, get used to frequent time changes.  You are now on a floating home, one that goes from one time zone to another quite frequently.  You know when we go to Daylight Savings Time and back again, usually about six months apart?  Get used to doing that almost every other day sometimes.  The crew lives for nights when we gain an hour and dreads the nights when we lose an hour of sleep.

Despite everything I have just written, I am thankful for the experience I had for six months.  I met tons of wonderful new people who I keep up with on their journeys on other ships.  I got to see the Panama Canal, stand on an island in the Caribbean, marvel at the beautiful Alaskan glaciers and the biggest mountains I have ever seen in my life, encounter my first volcanos in Costa Rica, and enjoyed the pleasure of running my very own library.  If this is a job you want, then go for it!  I hope you get the chance to experience life on a cruise ship.

 

 

Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular webzine and jobs list INALJ.com (formerly I Need a Library Job). Founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard, INALJ’s social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ.com. INALJ has had over 18.5 Million page views and helped thousands of librarians and LIS folk find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in a month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this many new jobs published daily. She has also written for the 2011, 2012 & 2013 LexisNexis Government Info Pro. She presents whenever she can, most recently thrice at the American Library Association's Annual Conference as well as breakout talk presenter at OCLC EMEA in Cape Town, South Africa and as a keynote speaker at the Virginia Library Association annual meeting, at the National Press Club, McGill University, the University of the Emirates, Dubai, MLIS program and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was a 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker and has served on the University of Maryland iSchool Board from 2014-2017. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and has relocated to being nomadic. She runs her husband’s moving labor website, KhanMoving.com, fixes and sells old houses and assists her husband cooking delicious Pakistani food as well. She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay. 

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  10 comments for “The Skinny on Cruise Ship Librarianship

  1. Kelly
    February 7, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    I worked a four-month stint with Holland America Line as a (MSIS-holding) librarian. You captured the details of being a ship librarian. :)

    Other things to note:
    -(As mentioned) You’ll work in formal wear. Have you ever shelved books in a gown? Get ready for some fun times.
    -My first day on the ship, I attended the weekly welcome show. My boss said to me “Don’t worry, we won’t make you go on stage on your first night”. I laughed to myself, thinking WHAT A FUNNY JOKE, me having to be on stage. Not a joke. You’ll (probably) be on stage for the welcome and farewell show, meaning twice a week usually. I also attended balls, was an actor in a murder mystery dinner, and helped out with bingo (among many other things).
    -(Expanding on #5) You’ll get REALLY good at answering bizarre questions (“What’s that bird outside the window?”, “If I dug a hole straight through the earth from (some place), where would I end up?”) without the internet (or die trying).

    • Rebecca Vogler
      February 10, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      Hi Kelly!
      You’re right! I forgot to mention being on stage twice a week. Thankfully that’s only during the 7-day cruises. If you’re fortunate enough to do a 30 day cruise or longer, you’ll only have to be on stage twice that cruise, always the welcoming show and the farewell show. However, HAL recently got rid of their farewell show, so you won’t even have to do that anymore! Unlike you, I DID have to be on stage that very first night along with the outgoing librarian who trained me for a few days before leaving the ship. Talk about nerves!

      I never did a murder mystery dinner, but I was the Bingo Queen along with the DJ every single Bingo day. There’s another thing that I had no idea I would be doing before I came on the ship.

      And my Lord, ALL OF THE BIRD WATCHERS! Everyone on that ship, no matter where in the world we were, was absolutely obsessed with birds. I’m not, so I never understood the obsession. I was just like “oh look at the pretty blue and black bird” and then looked away.

  2. Courtney Baron
    February 7, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Question – What happens if you are married/in a serious relationship? Do spouses get to tag along or, if they are qualified for another job on the ship, do cruise ships ever hire couples?

    • MTtoWY
      February 8, 2014 at 4:00 pm

      Cruise lines sometimes hire couples, which may make it easier to get a room for you and your spouse. However, it is very difficult. Usually relationships involving librarians include officers, and people only become officers if they have gone through school and lots of training. Even then, it may be difficult because you and your spouse’s contracts may not line up perfectly. One librarian who was in a serious relationship with an officer ended up staying past her contract as a FOB (Friend on Board) and got to stay in the officer’s room for several weeks. She passed up on the chance for another contract so she could stay with him longer.

      However, 2/3 of most cruise lines’ staff are Indonesian and Filipino. They pretty much clean rooms, work in the kitchens and beverage service, do the majority of the behind the scenes jobs (engineering, quartermaster, etc), and cruise lines are very unlikely to put North Americans in those positions. In my company, the majority of the officers were Dutch with a few British and Americans, and the entertainment staff (including my position) were Americans/Canadians/Brits/Dutch.

      I found that almost no Americans/Europeans had a boyfriend/girlfriend back home and virtually no one had a spouse back home. The opposite was true for the Indonesians and Filipinos. It was sad to learn that many were away from their spouses and children 10 months out of the year, but the money they made really went a long way back home. It was much like how people from Latin America leave their families to make money up in the U.S. and send that money home.

  3. Amie
    February 6, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    What are the two cruise lines that hire full time librarians?

    • MTtoWY
      February 8, 2014 at 3:50 pm

      Sorry I haven’t responded quicker. I’m still kind of new to writing for INALJ. The two cruise lines I know of are Holland America and Cunard. I’ve done some research and have yet to find any other cruise lines that hire full time librarians. Some lines use their entertainment staff to partially staff their libraries, but HAL and Cunard actually hire librarians.

      • February 9, 2014 at 1:52 pm

        Head editors – please sign your answers so we know who is writing this!

      • Rebecca Vogler
        February 10, 2014 at 3:17 pm

        Sorry about that! I was logged in and doing some editing stuff when I saw the comments. Those comments by MTtoWY was me, the original author of the post, and Head Editor of Nevada. Thanks everyone for the really great questions and comments! – Rebecca Vogler

  4. cruiser
    February 6, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Great blog – I just got back from a cruise on a line without a librarian. I know the position exists and I appreciate the inside scoop!

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