‘Let Them All Talk’ about cruise ship libraries and librarians

Let them all talk, indeed.. about this awesome cruise ship library!

I watched the movie Let Them All Talk (2020) this past December, when it was released on the streaming platform HBO Max. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film stars Meryl Streep as celebrated writer Alice Hughes; Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen as Alice’s university friends Susan and Roberta; Lucas Hedges as Alice’s nephew Tyler, and Gemma Chan as Alice’s new literary agent Karen. The bulk of the movie happens on a cruise ship — shot on location on the Queen Mary 2 — and there are more shenanigans to the plot than I have head space to tackle here, so here is a trailer that sums up the plot:

I know that Soderbergh likes to experiment with moviemaking techniques, but I didn’t realize until after I watched the film that the dialog was mostly improvised by the actors, which explains a LOT about the film’s odd pacing and how circular and repetitive the dialog felt. (Out of this celebrated cast, I think Gemma Chan and Dianne Wiest best handled that improvisational style.)

I also didn’t expect there to be a library scene in the movie! And OF COURSE when a library appears in a movie, I have to pause so I can take notes in the moment. Libraries and librarians really do pop up in all sorts of movies at the most unexpected moments.

Library scene #1: Introduction to the cruise ship library

At 34 minutes into this movie, Alice visits the cruise ship’s library. I chuckled that she went to check out which of her books were in the library’s collection. That is such a writer thing to do! (I should know. I’m married to one.) She also checks out what books the library has of another writer on the same voyage, Kelvin Kranz, who writes popular thrillers. And there is an entire row of Kranz’s books, which irks Alice, who is a writer who writes “serious” fiction — and who takes herself very seriously, indeed.

But of course, I was most interested in this AMAZING library, with its glossy wood bookshelves and inset lighting. It’s so sparkly, and it displays the books like jewels.

As you can see in the screenshots below, when Alice walks into the library, you can see a younger White woman, with dark hair pulled back and dressed in a uniform, standing behind a counter and handing books to another woman, a guest in a floral dress. And as the camera pans down the row of books as Alice looks for her own books, you can spy call number ranges (or thematic/genre indicators?) at the end caps of the rows.

Behind Alice, a White woman hands books to guests at the counter in Let Them All Talk (2020)
Call number signs are visible at the ends of the book rows

And as Anna walks around another row of books, we see another cruise ship library worker, this time a younger Asian woman, again wearing a cruise ship uniform. She is wearing glasses and appears to be shelving books. Also, in the background along the wall, you can just spy a small gold sign that reads “Library.” (And you know I zoomed in on that sign to double-check, right? OF COURSE I did. 😉 )

You can spy the small gold “Library” sign along the back wall, in the center of this screenshot
A library worker shelves books in the cruise ship library

This scene lasts only a couple of minutes. I reviewed the cast list, and there are no credits for these cruise ship library workers. We know that the movie was filmed on the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship, so were these two women — the White woman at the counter and the Asian woman shelving books — actual workers in this cruise ship library? At this point, my thoughts are leaning toward YES. (We will return to this question.)

Library scene #2: More views of the cruise ship library

At 51 minutes in, we revisit the cruise ship library, this time with literary agent Karen, who also tracks Alice Hughes’s books in the library collection! She takes down a copy of Hughes’s most famous book, You Always/You Never (which Karen wants Alice to write a sequel to), and she sits down in a comfy reading chair to (re)read it. Along the way, we get treated to more views of the library’s amenities, including the comfy seating area and several desks and tables with library computers or OPACs on them.

Karen looks for Alice Hughes’ works in the cruise ship library, too
Karen chats with Kelvin Kranz, the writer of popular thrillers

While Karen dives into the book, the writer Kelvin Kranz finds her, and it turns out Kelvin and Karen know each other quite well! The plot thickens… and I won’t spoil any more of the movie for you all. 😉

Library scene #3: Alice Hughes’s private library

The final library scene is right at the end of the film, practically the final shot. Alice’s nephew Tyler returns to his aunt’s home in New York, and we get a glimpse into her magical, old-fashioned library, with its mezzanine, fireplace, and rows and rows of books.

So we get TWO beautiful, gleaming, light-filled library spaces in this film — so delightfully unexpected!

Alice’s personal library

Will the real cruise ship library please stand up?

So let’s return to that research quest to find out if we are seeing the actual workers in this cruise ship library.

The first step for me was to verify that the library we see onscreen was actually the library from the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship. So I searched online for any photos, and voilà, it is indeed the same library, as evidenced by this extensive slideshow of the Queen Mary 2’s library on this Cruise Critic site. Also, on slide 19 in this photo slideshow, you can see a chart of the color-coded call number system they use. (And props to the propmaster, if you scroll up to the close-ups of the book props for Alice Hughes and Kelvin Kranz, it looks like they used the same, or similar, color-coded call number stickers!! Such good attention to detail warms this librarian’s heart! ❤ )

I also uncovered this article about the Queen Mary 2 library in the professional journal Libraries & Culture, and it actually describes details about the staffing and set-up of the library:

“The library is physically connected to the ship’s bookshop. The librarian is stationed at a service point that serves both the library and the bookshop. There is usually at least one other individual who works at this service point; that person handles most of the bookshop sales but also helps with library duties.”

Richard D. Burbank, “The ‘Queen Mary 2’ Library” article published in Libraries & Culture, 2005, p. 547.

Y’all, I squealed with glee when I realized we actually see this description of the library staffing model in the film! The woman at the counter is most likely the main librarian described “at a service point that serves both the library and the bookshop,” which would also explain why that counter looked particularly busy. And the woman shelving books is likely the library assistant worker who “helps with library duties.” (But the two positions could be reversed.) There is no doubt in my mind now that we are seeing real-life cruise ship librarians in this movie!

Because the reel — and real-life! — librarians are seen onscreen for mere seconds and are there to help reinforce the library setting, they fulfill the role of Information Providers. Ultimately, the movie falls into the Class IV category, films with reel librarian cameos.

I also really enjoyed reading this article, “Which Cruise Ship Library is Right for You?,” published in The Washington Post in 2016, which was full of interesting tidbits. The Queen Mary 2 was ultimately rated the best ship library for traditionalists, as it has has the largest library at sea, with about 10,000 volumes! And I wholeheartedly agree with this summation:

“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.”

Carol Sottili, “Which Cruise Ship Library is Right for You?” published in The Washington Post, 11 June 2016

We got to see everything described in that article — the librarians, the collection with bestsellers and classics, the carpeting, the leather armchairs, the gleaming book shelves, AND the Internet stations — in the movie. Let Them All Talk, indeed.. about this awesome cruise ship library!

Have you watched this movie? Have you ever been on a cruise ship that had an awesome library? Please share your thoughts and comments on this post. 🙂

Additional cruise ship librarian & library posts

Can’t get enough of ship librarians and libraries? Check out these additional posts!

  • In this 2011 post, ‘Bon voyage’ to the ship’s librarian, I delve into Bon Voyage! (1962), a Disney comedy about an American family on a “dream” vacation to Europe. In one scene, the father (Fred MacMurray) goes to the ship’s library and is greeted enthusiastically by the Ship’s Librarian, played by James Millhollin.
  • In this 2014 post, A ‘Libeled Lady’ and a library, I set sail on an ocean liner with William Powell in the 1936 film Libeled Lady. Although we never see a librarian on board in the film, Powell rings the ship’s steward for books on angling.
  • In the 2018 round-up about Private eyes in reel librarian films, I highlight the 1934 film, The Captain Hates the Sea, in which an alcoholic newspaperman boards a ship, hoping for a restful cruise and the chance to quit drinking and begin writing a book. Also on board is a private detective hoping to nab a criminal with a fortune in stolen bonds — and a librarian on vacation! However, this reel librarian may be using this occupation as a cover for illicit activities…
  • In this 2019 post about the 1960s Miss Marple movies, featuring her trusty sidekick and village librarian, Mr. Stringer, we get to see Miss Marple (played by Margaret Rutherford) visit the ship’s library in Murder Ahoy! (1964). In the ship’s library, Miss Marple finds a copy of a book that serves as a vital clue that proves Miss Marple’s theory about a murder — and she later uses this same book to catch the killer in the final act!

Sources used