Interview: Cressida Hanson, Cruise Ship Librarian by Jennifer Moyer

CressidaHansonlibraryphoto.jpegCan librarians have adventures while they work? Cressida Hanson '11LS does. She shares her experiences as a cruise ship librarian traveling the seven seas, organizing books clubs, and leading party line dancing. As a student leader at the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS), Hanson created a "Brown Bag" lunchtime series, was an AmeriCorps Student Leader in Service, and was a Beta Phi Mu initiate. 

How did you become a cruise ship librarian? What inspired you to take this career path?

Cressidalibraryphoto.jpegI read an article about cruise ship librarians and other non-traditional library roles when I started at GSLIS. It hadn't even crossed my mind that such a position existed. When I approached graduation I stumbled upon the article again and found the Holland America Lines application page. I applied and didn't hear back. A year and half later I looked it up again, applied, and heard back immediately.  Persistence paid off! 

I needed a change of scenery from my previous position but didn't want to leave a blank space on my resume for several months or a year, especially in this economy. Being able to combine my library expertise with travel was extremely appealing. The position allows me to travel extensively to exotic locations, such as Hawaii, Mexico, and Alaska, and stay professionally relevant. 

What does a cruise ship library look like? Is it mostly a print collection or is it a mix of digital resources (e.g., e-books, DVDs, etc.)?

Cressidalibraryphoto2.jpegMy cruise ship library is the definition of a leisure-focused library. Comfortable leather sofas, lounge chairs facing ocean-view windows, a 24-hour jigsaw puzzle table and chess table. The library is part of the "Explorations Café," a three-part venue made up of the library, Internet Café, and a coffee shop. I manage the library. The Internet Manager's desk is next to mine and she deals exclusively with IT-related issues.

As the ship's librarian, I oversee books, magazines, and board games. In the morning, I put out daily quizzes, Sudokus, and newspaper digests for guests. Based on my desk placement, I am also a de facto information station, regularly directing passengers to activities throughout the ship.

Once upon a time, DVDs were housed in the library. They are now held at the Front Desk, since it is open and manned 24 hours versus the library's 14 hours.  As the only librarian, I put out a self-checkout form for passengers to complete whenever I take a break. No e-Book collection exists due to complicated international copyright laws. The ship's Internet access is slow and subject to disruptions since access is via satellite.

What is an average day like for you on the ship?  Please share any unusual requests or experiences that you may have encountered.

When you sign up to be a cruise ship librarian, you are signing up for long days. On sea days, I work nine to 10 hours and about six hours on port days. I also work seven days a week for the entire contract. Librarians are usually on six-month contracts.

The library opens at 8 a.m., but I arrive 10 to 15 minutes early to fold newspaper digests from the New York Times and The Canadian. Newspapers are emailed and printed by the Front Desk, and then delivered to me. I am at my desk throughout the day, with two two-hour scheduled breaks.  I close the book gates and lock up the board game cabinets at 10 p.m.

There are a number of other duties I fulfill as librarian. Twice a day, I put out playing cards, bridge score pads, pencils, and any additional materials for card players in a separate "card room." For cruises 14 days and longer, I host a book club for passengers. The book is chosen to reflect the destination. For my Hawaii cruise, we read Alan Brennert's novel, Honolulu. I also sign service cards for Service Club members (Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, etc.) to take back home as an excuse note for missing their weekly meetings.

Occasional additional duties are also assigned. I have led party-line dancing, attended Officers Black & White Balls, and helped with tendering, which is when the ship is too large for the dock and passengers are shuttled to port on smaller boats.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a cruise ship librarian?

Traveling is an obvious advantage. On port days, provided there isn't a scheduled crew drill and there is space, I can sign up for free onshore excursions. So far, I visited lava-covered fields, gone rum tasting, and swam with dolphins. If I don't sign up, I can visit beaches, shop, and walk around the city.

One makes friends quickly too. People who last in the cruise line field, which is typically past the first contract, are naturally friendly and gregarious. Since people have different lengths of contracts, you meet many people on board. I already have open invitations to crash at apartments in England, Italy, and Romania.

However, you are constantly at work. There are no days off or weekends. You must keep calm when encountering the occasional angry guest. Long days are inevitable, and to make sure that the day doesn't feel entirely dedicated to work, people stay up late socializing. Naps are essential.

If students are interested in pursuing this career path, what skills and classes would you recommend? Also, what resources should students use to seek such opportunities to find a job on a cruise ship?

Superior customer service is the essential skill to be successful in this position. I work with up to 1,400 passengers and cruises turn over guests on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Reference interviewing skills are important. Don't assume you know what the guest is asking. Many times they're not even sure. Work with them. Reader's advisory service is minimal. Guests appreciate advice about a book, but they appreciate it more if you can quickly help them find the book they want. You will also be constantly tidying up the library. A well used library is a messy library. And my library gets used a lot.

You have to be flexible. Colleagues are constantly changing and they each have different interpretations of rules and regulations. Guest demographics change.  I am on a ship with primarily older guests, but many of the ships visiting European ports have families with children on board. No ship is identical, and you have to learn how that ship works.

For those interested in cruise librarianship, I suggest reviewing cruise ship career web pages.

Who typically attends the book clubs? What types of books do you read?

Book clubs are designed to serve the location focus of the cruise. Depending on the number of sea days, you will meet three or four times during the cruise to discuss the book.  Librarians put their own touch on the book club. I like to talk about a few chapters at a time. I am lucky the author of my selected book researched and embedded historical events in his narrative, which directs the conversation. I occasionally ask questions to encourage dialogue about the book. 

I've read that not all cruise ship librarians need a master's degree since most of the work involves "checking in and out books." Do you agree with this statement?  

I do. I am unusual since I have a master's degree for this position. Yet I use my knowledge to organize the library and make suggestions regarding policies. Many former librarians who are passengers appreciate that I am also "a librarian in practice."

As a student leader at Simmons GSLIS, you created the "Brown Bag" lunchtime series, which continues today. How did your leadership experiences as ALASC resident and an AmeriCorps student leader at Simmons GSLIS prepare you for your current position?

My leadership experience and collaborations with other student groups and alumni helped me recognize that libraries exist in many forms. Combining your background knowledge and hobbies with a library degree makes you distinctive in the field. Love wine? Develop the skills to become the next wine librarian, which is an actual position at the Sonoma County Public Library! As ALASC president, I asked students and alumni to submit pictures of the libraries where they worked for Library Snapshot Day. It showed the diversity of our field. My student leadership experience prepared me for my current position by expanding my horizon to even consider this as an option. I also learned to be proactive in the library field and try for positions outside my comfort zone. You never know whether the experience, or the people you meet there, will help you with another job.

Alumnae/i News | Career | Infolink Newsletter | Summer 2013