Life as a Librarian aboard the Training Ship ‘Empire State VI’
By Laurel Angrist
If you’ve ever felt like putting your MLS degree to good use towards an unusual opportunity, now may be your chance. State University of New York’s Maritime College is now accepting applicants for the position of Ship’s Librarian, a unique chance to be the sole librarian aboard a training ship for students entering the maritime trades. What makes this experience unlike other Semester-at-Sea programs is its trade-based focus: students study maritime engineering, navigation and seamanship and are on track to earn their license as merchant marines. (Please don’t let the khaki colored uniforms fool you, however, they are really just like regular college students who play board games, watch as many movies as possible, and read lots of novels in their down time.)
I was lucky enough to serve as Ship’s Librarian aboard the training ship T.S. Empire State VI during one of two 45-day cruise terms in summer 2014 and found the experience to be very rewarding. In the ship’s environment, the library functions as both a community space and study room. It was wonderful to get to know the students and to help them with their assignments and research. The questions they ask are often quite challenging and draw upon a wide range of reference resources related to marine science, engineering and navigation. I thoroughly enjoyed the exciting atmosphere at sea, as well as the enthusiasm among those studying to become professional mariners (who, for the record, include women as well as men).
The library environment aboard the ship requires significant problem solving abilities to answer reference questions that draw upon a wealth of print resources and government documents available on the library’s intranet. While there is no true internet aboard the ship, email is available through a subscription service that allows for daily communication with the shore library at SUNY Maritime, which is there to assist you should you require any additional input to answer students’ questions. In addition to providing reference services, much of the librarian’s role is focused on offering readers’ advisory that challenges students in their appreciation of both fiction and non-fiction titles. In the evenings, I would also play movies in the adjacent student lounge, which the students would pick out themselves via a democratic selection process. Day by day I believe that the library ran quite smoothly, with the cadets, faculty and crew always ready to lend a hand and provide useful suggestions and feedback regarding the ship’s library services.
Far away from the ordinary monotony of commercial cruises, life aboard a converted cargo ship like the TS Empire State is a unique and challenging experience. On deck there is the weather to contend with such as blustery winds and occasionally significant waves, especially when the ship crosses a sea like the Atlantic. I packed a light windbreaker so I could spend as much time on deck as possible, where there are beautiful coastlines cropping into view, and dolphins often jumping ahead of the bow. The library itself is located far down in the belly of the ship, which is the most stable place you can possibly be. That said, the constant creaking and rolling of life aboard the ship is not for the faint of heart. A reasonable level of physical fitness is also desirable, since you will need to climb many stairs to get from the library to your room on either the upper level or cabin deck. Although an extended cruise aboard a cargo ship is not for everyone, I will tell you that coordinating library services in the ship’s environment was often an exciting challenge that demanded a great deal of creativity and gave me an unusual degree of responsibility. If you have a sense of adventure and an MLS, I would strongly encourage you to apply!