April 19, 2018

Career Advice: 2012 Mover & Shaker Brett Bonfield

LJ‘s Career Insights reaches out to our Movers & Shakers and asks about key moments in their careers. Brett Bonfield is one of our change agents.

This series made possible by:

Brett Bonfield Movers & Shakers 2012


Collingswood Public Library, NJ

Doctoral LIS candidate, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, September 2010 to Present; MSLIS, Drexel University, Philadelphia, 2007

In the Library With the Lead Pipe

March model for Men of the Stacks calendar, which challenges librarian stereotypes and benefits the It Gets Better Project™ to help LGBT youth

Photo ©Sean McGinty Photography LLC

What skills, events, or other opportunities have you found most useful to your career?

I was hired for my current job in part because of the things I did before I went to library school, primarily my work as a fundraiser and web developer, which also involved managing teams or departments. In addition, I had volunteered for community groups and helped with the school district’s strategic planning process.

The skills I developed doing this work have probably been the most useful to me. It’s important to have a management methodology that makes sense to you and fits with your personality, to know your budget and funding streams, to understand technology and to welcome the ways that it evolves, and to know and love the community that employs you.

Is there a colleague or mentor who has helped you in your career, and, if so, how did they help?

In many ways, my colleagues at the Collingswood Public Library, on the board, and in the Borough of Collingswood are the best mentors I’ve ever had. I’m also extraordinarily fortunate to have a great group of librarians within reasonable driving distance from Collingswood, many of whom have been extraordinarily generous with their time and guidance, especially Joan Bernstein, Susan Briant, Pete Bromberg, Sophie Brookover, Trevor Dawes, Beth Egan, Gabriel Farrell, Bob Hunter, Kathy Schalk-Greene and my advisor at Rutgers, Marie Radford.

I’ll also always be indebted to my colleagues and mentors at Penn, Temple, and St. Joseph’s, the libraries where I worked part-time before getting hired for my current position. In particular, Steven Bell has been an ideal role model and teacher (literally: I took two classes with him in library school). And I’ve had an amazing opportunity in the past few years to learn leadership and governance directly from deservedly acclaimed experts in these areas: Maureen Sullivan, Roberta Stevens, Camila Alire, and Jim Rettig.

Though if I’m apportioning credit for whatever I’ve managed to accomplish, the largest share has to go to my colleagues at In the Library with the Lead Pipe. In trying to keep up with them, I consistently push myself beyond the limits of what I believe I’m capable of accomplishing.

Do you feel that any of the equity gaps — generational, gender, racial, educational — in the library world have affected your career’s trajectory?

I’ve unfairly benefited from every advantage imaginable. In return, I’m trying to alter the system from within and devoting my career to public service.

What do library schools have to do to better prepare graduates for the job market?

I’m hoping to investigate this question in a scholarly way in the near future. For now, here are a few hypotheses. Library schools would produce better prepared librarians if they:

  • Admit a smaller percentage of their applicants and decrease the size of their programs
  • Hire faculty with library degrees and require students to take at least half their courses with tenured, full-time faculty who have been trained as librarians
  • Stop offering online courses until they can demonstrate that online classes are at least as challenging and valuable as in-person classes
  • Require all graduating students to demonstrate proficiency in statistics, accounting, and computer programming
  • Support greater diversity in their programs by funding initiatives such as the Spectrum Scholars program

Where would you like to be in five years professionally? What’s your dream job?

I have my dream job. I work with great colleagues and answer to a great board, municipal administration, and the most incredible 14,000 bosses anyone has ever had. They deserve the best library in the world, and it’s fun and humbling trying to help us get there. I’d like nothing more than to retire from this job in 20-25 years knowing that we have achieved every goal we’ve set out for ourselves.

That’s probably a boring answer for anyone who doesn’t live in Collingswood, NJ. So here’s my second favorite dream job: working for the Gates Foundation on a library-focused venture capital fund. I’m confident that the kind of thinking that has made YCombinator so successful can also work in library, education, nonprofit, and similar niche markets. Atul Gawande made a similar argument in his article about creating innovative pilot programs as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, pointing out that a major success of the Smith-Lever Act (which established the U.S.D.A. Cooperative Extension Service) was its willingness to fund experiments. An enlightened funder could provide similar incentives for experimentation and entrepreneurship in libraries, and I would love to help make that happen.

What was your biggest failure as a librarian and what did you learn from that experience that helped you grow?

I’m fortunate enough to fail multiple times each day. Along the way I’ve gotten better at recognizing my mistakes, addressing them as quickly and efficiently as I can (and apologizing if there’s anyone who deserves an apology), and moving on to the next item on my to do list.

Any words of wisdom for those coming into the field?

I don’t consider them wise, but I recently published over 3,000 words of advice for new librarians. There is far better advice out there, especially if you’re willing to apply advice given in other contexts to contemporary library issues. I particularly recommend:

Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. Thanks for the mention Brett. I’m honored to have played a role in your career choice and your path in in librarianship. You were a great student, and your fantastic accomplishments confirm what I always knew – that you’d be successful no matter what you chose to do in your career. I’m sure your words of wisdom will inspire and encourage librarians at all stages of their careers.