Brett Bonfield – Writing the Next Chapter for Princeton Public Library

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By Anne Levin

Photography by Andrew Wilkinson

Nearly a decade ago, Brett Bonfield was at a career crossroads. He had written two novels, worked as a technology specialist, been a real estate analyst and a professional fundraiser. But he wasn’t feeling fulfilled.

So Bonfield decided to interview his closest friends and ask them two questions:

“Do you like what you’re doing? And would I like what you’re doing?”

The only one who answered “yes” to question number two was a librarian.

“He said, ‘What took you so long?,’ ” the 46-year-old Bonfield recalled during a January interview just days before he started work as new director of the Princeton Public Library. He was sitting at a table in Small World Coffee, observing the morning rush as he spoke. He had walked over from the apartment on Humbert Street, just a few blocks from the library, where he and his wife, Beth Filla, were settling in.

“This person, the librarian, is a good friend,” Bonfield continued. “He knew me well. So what he said really made an impression. I had spoken with lawyers, doctors, chefs. I talked to people who knew me and loved me. Also at that time, my mother was doing public relations for a library consortium. So the idea began to make sense.”

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Energized by this new career path, Bonfield enrolled at Drexel University. Thanks to credits for past experience, he was able to earn a master’s degree in library science in just a year. He thought he would probably do business reference in a public library. An internship at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania gave him valuable experience in that direction.

What Bonfield certainly wasn’t thinking about, at the time, was becoming the director of a public library. But when he heard that the library in Collingswood, the South Jersey town where he and his wife lived, had fired their director, he decided to apply for the job. “Beth grew up in Collingswood, and we loved the community. We knew the library well,” he said. “I had never worked in a public library before. But I had my MLS and I was committed to libraries.”

That was in 2008. Bonfield landed the job. “They needed somebody to fundraise, engage with the library community, and take care of the technology because it was a mess,” he said. “They had five public computers, and they all had viruses when I started. It turned out that I had what they needed, and it was just a really wonderful fit.” Over the seven years he served as director, Bonfield led initiatives resulting in more community engagement, more library visits, increased circulation, digital collections, and access to technology. He became co-chair of Library Pipeline, a nonprofit dedicated to providing opportunities, funding, and services for libraries and librarians.

Bonfield and his wife were happy in Collingswood. She had become a successful yoga instructor, and the couple bought the building that housed her studio and spent all of their money converting the second floor to a residence. The building was just half a block from the library.

When he heard that Leslie Burger, the much-lauded director of the Princeton Public Library, was retiring, Bonfield thought about some of his library friends who might be interested in the job. But his wife urged him to try for himself. “She told me Princeton wasn’t really that far; that she could commute,” he said. “So even though I didn’t want to move, I started to think seriously about it. I was familiar with Princeton, because my Dad had taught at Rider. And I remembered seeing a production of Coriolanus at McCarter. I knew the town and the community and had always admired it.”

Bonfield won out over 24 other candidates for the Princeton job after a national search led by the company Library Strategies International LLC. The library’s board president Dr. Robert Ginsburg said Bonfield inspired enthusiasm among those who had worked with him.

“When we sought references about Brett, people told us that he has a very clear vision of the future of libraries,” he said in a press release announcing Bonfield’s hiring just before Thanksgiving last year. “He is a good mentor and manager. He invites participation and involvement and is a thoughtful listener and effective communicator. He loves libraries—public libraries in particular—and has a track record in Collingswood of making the library a central and valued hub of the community.”

Bonfield was born in Urbana, Illinois. His early childhood was spent in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where his father was a professor at the University of Alabama. The family later moved to the Philadelphia suburbs. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Rutgers University, Bonfield got a job as a fundraiser with the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “I loved it,” he recalled. “We shared office space with New Jersey Citizen Action. I became the co-manager of the phone canvassing.”

But writing a novel was on his mind. Bonfield decided to move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to focus on doing just that. He got a job in a bookstore. “After a year, I got a call that my parents were getting divorced,” he recalled. “I have a younger brother and sister, so I thought I needed to be home.” He moved to Philadelphia and landed a job in development and alumni relations at the University of Pennsylvania. He met and married Beth; then helped put her through graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master’s in social work.

“But then, it was my turn to figure out what I wanted to do,” he said. “Beth read the novel I had written and said ‘Yes, you should do this.’ I spent three years writing and working part time at Temple and Jefferson universities, doing tech. I was also a real estate analyst. So I learned about finance accounting.” As for the novels, “They didn’t work out,” Bonfield said. “They’re not terrible, but not something I wanted to have my name attached to.”

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Fundraising for a company that specializes in technology for nonprofits was the next stop on Bonfield’s career path. “I was director of communications and fundraising,” he said. “It was a great job and we were successful. But I didn’t love it. I’m not a fundraiser.”

What he does love, he has been happy to discover, is public libraries. He started officially at Princeton Public Library on January 19. He is aware that following in the footsteps of Leslie Burger —credited by many with transforming the library into “the community’s living room,” as she often said—is a hard act to follow. He waited until she had departed before beginning the job.

“Leslie has been there a long time and done amazing work,” he said. “Coming in before she’s gone would have been disrespectful to her and confusing to everybody else. She’s been great, though. Everybody has been wonderful. It’s so obvious how much they care about serving the community.”

Bonfield has his style; Burger had hers. “Leslie and I have very different personalities,” he said. “And that’s good. If you try to imitate, you fail.”

He is starting by getting to know as many people, from library patrons to leaders in the community, as he can. “We’ve seen the Princeton University president and the school board president change in the last few years, and they both set a precedent of listening,” he said. “It’s really important to me to do just that. I want to meet with everyone I can to get to know—the library’s board, the volunteer leadership, the donors, Mayor Lempert, and so many others. I need to hear from them. There are so many stakeholders.”

It’s all about being open to change. “Libraries, where they are positioned in the world, have to be ready for change. We’ve got to be ahead of that. I’ve been hired to make sure we’re always a step or two ahead of those changes,” he said. “Another focus will be privacy and intellectual freedom. I want to help the community become educated about this, and safe. Somebody’s got to do this, and it should be us.”