February 27, 2019

Leaving Princeton is Bittersweet For Library Director Bonfield

By Anne Levin

Brett Bonfield

As he prepares to leave his post as executive director of Princeton Public Library for a new job in Cincinnati, Brett Bonfield wants to make one thing very clear: his accomplishments during his three-year tenure in Princeton are a result of teamwork rather than his individual efforts.

“It is we — not I,” he said during an interview on Monday. “Everything we’ve done here has been a group effort. It has been just incredible to see what this team could do. Almost from the beginning, to be a part of that team was a great privilege.”

The library’s board of trustees announced on February 20 that Bonfield will depart on April 12 to become chief operations officer of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in Ohio.

In the new position, he will be responsible for the operation of Cincinnati’s 41 branch libraries. Princeton Public Library’s board is in the process of appointing an interim director and will put together a committee to launch a nationwide search for Bonfield’s successor.

Early this week, Bonfield said he was recruited for the job by Paula Brehm-Heeger, the new executive director of the Cincinnati library. The two had met over the years at conferences and conventions and discovered a shared sympathy for “transparency, inclusiveness, and approaching work with collegiality and entrepreneurial spirit,” Bonfield said. “I certainly wasn’t expecting to move, but when you pass three years [as a library director], recruiters start approaching you. The idea had been planted by Paula a year ago, but we had just bought a house here, and we liked the community. We weren’t thinking about leaving.”

A whirlwind visit to Cincinnati this month won over Bonfield and his wife, Beth Filla, he said. The city has begun to turn around because of a lot of reinvestment over the past several years, and residents have voted to give the public libraries significant funding. “There is a huge amount of vitality and optimism there now,” Bonfield said. “It was apparently a frustrating place to work for a long time because the buildings were falling apart, but now they finally have new energy from a new leader, and the funding to get things done.”

Bonfield came to Princeton in January 2016 from the public library in Collingswood, succeeding longtime executive director Leslie Burger. Her parting accomplishment was the renovation and redesign of the library’s second floor. Bonfield took over the project. “Leslie had planned it and raised the money, but as a group we had to do it right, and we did,” he said. “It was a huge undertaking by the entire staff. We had to move all the services to the first and third floors. There was really almost no disruption in service during all of this.”

Though humble, Bonfield admits to some measure of pride at the library’s community engagement during his tenure. “I’m so in love with the nonprofit and education and arts communities here, and the business community as well,” he said. “The level of partnership we’ve had with them all has been incredible. The Princeton Migrations project is an example. And the programming and services we can offer are because of these partnerships.”

The library’s strategic plan has been expanded. “It is really strong and reflects the values of the community and the library. It will really help the next executive director guide the organization,” Bonfield said. “It was a really transparent and inclusive process. It took a lot of iterations and group effort to get it to the point where it is actually the kind of thing that people can put right next to their desk and read in three minutes.”

Leaving Princeton Public Library, and the town itself, will be bittersweet. “Princeton will teach you nothing if it doesn’t teach you humility,” Bonfield said. “You walk out the door and you meet the most accomplished people you’ve ever hoped to meet. And they are humble, too. They all think they haven’t done anything yet. I’m just fortunate to have been here, and it’s really hard to leave.”