by Margery Ashmun, Reference Librarian
Since grade school, we’ve been told that when it comes to others, we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. That said, like any rule, there remain some fun and noteworthy exceptions, where someone’s surroundings and what they collect shines a light on their inner self. Meet Drew University Library’s Bruce Lancaster, our longtime reference associate and a delightful exception to this axiom.
Just poke your head through Bruce’s office door— it’s typically open—and his unique background and interests quickly become apparent. Bruce’s desk, bookshelves and walls are brimming with more than four decades of intriguing collectibles, from the humorous cartoons he circulates throughout the Reference Department to his toys, gadgets, magazines and a quirky cache of odds ’n ends. To the casual observer or first-time visitor, what may look like flotsam and jetsam actually hold clues to an interesting and varied life, a timeline of items ranging from World War II paraphernalia and cartoon character figurines to relics of Bruce’s early and recent years at Drew.
There’s no shortage of eye-catching items worth investigating. Start with the figurine of two mini-rats—one black, one white— engaged in hand-to-hand combat. While immediately familiar as pop culture kitsch, they also offer hints of Bruce’s interest in the intersection of art, politics and satire. In fact, the roiled rodents represent a slice of classic Cold War humor—MAD Magazine’s “Spy vs Spy” cartoons—the creation of Antonio Prohias, a Cuban artist and political activist. Prohias became a contributor to MAD after fleeing Cuba in 1960, when his caustic cartoons critical of the Castro regime raised hackles with the new dictator, who accused him of spying for the CIA. These figurines reflect both Bruce’s dry, dark sense of humor and his longtime interest in geopolitical affairs, something he cultivated from his earliest days as a child of the military.
A Man of the World
Bruce was born in China in the 1940s to a family headed by a former Marine Corps colonel (Bruce Lancaster Sr.), who worked as a Foreign Service officer stationed at the American Embassy in Nanking. After many years of serving the United States at diplomatic outposts around the globe (England, Germany and Hungary among them), the elder Lancaster rose to the rank of deputy assistant secretary of state under President Lyndon Johnson. As a result of his father’s service and having lived in Asia, South America and Europe, Bruce has long had a front-row seat for world affairs.
Arriving at Drew in the early 1970s, Bruce started as a student in the Theological School prior to joining the library staff. Over the years, his talents have been utilized across various departments, but ultimately Bruce found his niche within the reference area. His institutional knowledge is second to none, and he’s a go-to source for most things library related. For a hint about Bruce’s history here, consider a small wooden device known as a Gaylord Fine Computer, which he fondly refers to as the library’s first computer. While looking eerily similar to a golf tee pegboard game that one might play at a family restaurant, the Gaylord is more likely a distant cousin of the abacus. Its sole function: calculating overdue fines for library users. Bruce discovered the device as a student employee around 1972, finding it tucked into a drawer deep in the Circulation Department. Immediately intrigued, he saved the device after it had become obsolete for his own burgeoning collection, where it remains today.
A small, manila-colored card entitled How to Teach reveals a clue to how an unconventional reference professional like Bruce might have developed his instruction skills. Look closely and you’ll notice a step-by-step list of tips for individuals who are new to the role of teacher. Produced by the U.S. War Instruction Board during WWII, it was distributed to American manufacturers charged with training unskilled labor, those people replacing regular employees who’d become involved in fighting the war itself. Bruce found this government relic during one of his favorite idylls: trolling New Jersey’s ubiquitous flea markets. He was intrigued by its no-nonsense tips, as well as the plight of U.S. companies teaching nontraditional workers the skills needed to stoke America’s war effort at home.
Alongside all the cool tchotchkes lining Lancaster’s shelves, you’ll also find actual books—a slew of them, many offering their own insight into his life and work at Drew. Before judging them by their covers, though, take time to chat with Bruce. You’ll come away with some great stories about the library, its history and its most colorful staffer.
This story originally appeared in Visions, The Library Newsletter, Spring 2017