A few decades ago, a nicely appointed library was one of a cruise ship’s star attractions. But then came climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, hand-carved carousels, 4-D theaters, zip lines and surfing simulators. Plus e-readers, tablets and smartphones.
That spacious mahogany library stuffed with thousands of volumes suddenly had lots of competition. Some lines, such as Disney, which launched in the late 1990s, decided to forego libraries altogether. Others, including Carnival and Seabourn, dressed them up with wine bars and coffee stations. And a few, such as Cunard and Oceania, have stayed with tradition.
John Money, co-owner of Ocean Books, has been designing and supplying ship libraries since the 1970s and still works with several lines, including Silversea, Cunard and Oceania. Even he is resigned to the effect that technology and competition for attention and dollars have had on the old library model. “There is a revenue manager on board every ship, and they need to get the maximum amount of cash from each passenger,” Money said, noting that libraries typically are not big money-makers. Technology has also chipped away at the ship library concept. “Even I read on my iPad now,” Money said.
Linda Garrison, who has sailed on about 125 cruises in her 15-plus years as cruise writer for About.com, has also noticed the shrinking space devoted to ship libraries and the increasing number of passengers toting e-readers. And she’s observed something that seems counterintuitive: Oftentimes, the bigger the ship, the smaller the library. “Large cruise ships just have too many things to do, and most of their guests are not on vacation to sit in a quiet space reading a book,” Garrison said. “On the flip side, smaller luxury ships without a lot of onboard activities or entertainment often have larger libraries.”
So what’s a library-loving cruise-goer to do?
We’ve taken a look at all the major and a few smaller lines popular with Americans to separate the book-heavy from the tech-savvy from the let’s-just-party. The good news: There is something for everyone.
● Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 has the largest library at sea, with about 10,000 volumes: 8,400 in English, 800 in German and the rest in Japanese, Spanish and French. Staffed by full-time librarians, the collection holds a wide variety of materials, including bestsellers, classics and travel guides. Lush carpeting, leather sofas and armchairs, rich wood-and-glass shelves and semi-private Internet stations would be the envy of any public library. The two-deck-high libraries aboard the line’s two other ships, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria, also get high marks, holding approximately 8,000 and 7,000 volumes, respectively, in various languages.
● Oceania Cruises operates several luxurious ships built by now-defunct Renaissance Cruises and known for their opulent libraries. The line’s four sister ships — Regatta, Insignia, Nautica and Sirena — have been totally refurbished but without losing the flavor of their English-style libraries, with fireplaces, plush wing-backed chairs and painted dome ceilings. The collections each offer more than 2,000 books, including destination-specific travel guides, bestselling mysteries and classic literature.
● American Queen Steamboat Company’s 436-passenger American Queen may not be a huge ship, but it boasts two libraries with thoughtful collections based on the rivers it plies. The Riverlorian library is a collection of about 400 books under lock-and-key that passengers can sign out. It includes volumes on rivers and riverboats, American history, Native Americans, Lewis and Clark, the Civil War and Southern and Cajun cultures, plus several dozen books by or about Mark Twain. The collection in the opulent Mark Twain Gallery library, which features Tiffany lamps and mahogany-accented ceilings, offers similar Americana-based books, plus a selection of Time-Life American Wilderness books, travel guides to states that the American Queen visits and even a few donated novels.
● The handsomely appointed library aboard Silversea’s 100-passenger Silver Galapagos features more than 300 books devoted to Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands and evolution, including several copies of Darwin’s landmark works “On the Origin of Species” and “The Voyage of the Beagle.” The library aboard this expedition cruise ship, which sails exclusively among the Galapagos Islands, also offers an extensive collection of maps and charts of the archipelago.
● Holland America is considered one of the old-school lines when it comes to ship libraries. Some of its larger ships carry as many as 4,000 books, and book clubs are offered on longer cruises. Its libraries hold the usual array of genres, but the Elliott Bay Book Company of Seattle, which supplies the books, also pays special attention to matching topics to each ship’s itinerary. For example, Alaska ships offer Alaska-themed reading material, including travel guides. The Koningsdam, which launched in April, takes this concept to a new level, with its entire collection — travel guides, atlases and coffee-table books — linked to its European and Caribbean destinations.
● Azamara Club Cruises’ two sister ships, Azamara Quest and Azamara Journey, boast libraries, called Drawing Rooms, that retain a traditional feel. But recent and ongoing extensive renovations cast a more contemporary vibe. Dark wood has been painted white, and guests can page through Assouline coffee-table books, such as a massive hot-pink tome about Barbie & Ken. Expanded technology is one of the focal points of the recent renovations, with fun interactive features now expanded to areas outside the library. Digital tabletops that allow passengers to make their own postcards and post to social media can be found in the Drawing Room and in the new Living Room area. And, in Deck Four’s concierge area, a 98-inch touch screen with a world map prompts guests to touch tiles to view videos, photos, destination information and day-by-day voyage itineraries.
● Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony doesn’t skimp on books in its nearly 700-square-foot traditionally decorated library. The 5,000-book collection covers everything from poetry to sports to whodunits. It also offers 2,000 DVDs and audio books that can be borrowed. But those who want a little more than a sit-down with a good read can head to the ship’s Computer University@Sea, where a team of techies offer complimentary lessons on topics ranging from basic computer skills to advanced Web design. The ship even boasts a technology concierge, whose job is to enlighten passengers on the ins and outs of iPads, iPhones, GPS devices, etc.
● Want a little wine to go with that novel? Head to Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Breeze, Carnival Sunshine or the brand new Carnival Vista. Each library is a small with 200 books. But the cozy space comes with something extra: Pull out that Sail & Sign card, swipe it in the self-serve wine dispenser and enjoy a nice Cab with that romance novel. Wines are dispensed in two-, four- and six-ounce pours, with prices ranging from $2.25 for a liberal tasting of Super Tuscan to $15 for a full glass of Riesling.
● The Seabourn Odyssey, launched in 2009, was the line’s first ship to incorporate its library in a central hub “designed to encourage sociability.” The area surrounding the guest services desk includes a 1,000-book library, shops, an outdoor terrace and a coffee bar. Books cover a wide variety of topics, from natural history to fiction, and the collection includes a UNESCO reference section as part of the line’s partnership with the United Nations agency. Velvet-covered armchairs, drape-covered windows and computer stations give it a relaxed living-room feel.
Carol Sottili is a regular contributor to The Washington Post’s travel section.