It’s a no-brainer. You see someone looking at child porn, you call the cops, right?
Not if you want to keep your job at the Lindsay branch of the Tulare County Library system in California.
When library assistant Brenda Biesterfeld saw 39-year-old Donny Lynn Chrisler viewing images of naked boys on a Tulare County library computer last year, she told her supervisor, Judi Hill. Hill’s solution was to have Biesterfeld hand Chrisler a note explaining that his behavior was not permissible and that he would be banned from the library if it happened again. Biesterfeld was explicitly told she should not report the incident to authorities.
Fortunately, Biesterfeld recognized the inappropriateness of administering the equivalent of a time out to a guy checking out child porn in public. She helped officers catch Chrisler in the act of viewing kiddie porn images, resulting in his arrest. Additional images were found in his home, and he is now awaiting trial.
When she told her supervisor what she had done, Biesterfeld was admonished for lack of loyalty to the County, and even threatened. Biesterfeld told Hill she was not just a county employee, but a mother and a citizen as well.
Two days later, Brenda Biesterfeld was fired, just before her employee probationary period expired.
I’m sure most of you join me in applauding Brenda Biesterfeld as a hero, a model citizen who puts the safety of children before her career. But I do want to impress upon all of you that this type of situation is more common than you think, and is symptomatic of a larger problem with the “professional ethics” drilled into future librarians by graduate programs and the American Library Association.
I ought to know – I’ve been through it.
After college, I began working in an academic library and decided to pursue a graduate degree in Library Science. If nothing else, my indoctrination into librarianship drove home one point: never, ever give law enforcement officials information about a library patron.
Those who obstruct law enforcement are deified as defenders of First Amendment rights, while those who adhere to legal mandates by cooperating with local or federal officials are pariahs in the library world. I was 22 and in love with libraries and books. Nerdy, I know, but championing First Amendment rights, actually helping to defend the American public from censorship, sounded so noble.
And I believed all this discussion of professional philosophy and information ethics was purely theoretical. Surely no pedophile would use the public access computers in the library to download kiddie porn.
But then, a technically savvy coworker came to me, pale and visibly shaken, and told me he had found horrible, unspeakable images of children on a library computer. The hard drive, he said, was completely filled with movies and stills. He also said he knew who had downloaded the pornographic content.
I went with him to offer moral support as he informed our supervisor. She assured us she would handle things in consultation with the college administration.
I’m embarrassed to write this, but in all honesty, I moved on from that incident pretty quickly. Unlike my coworker, I didn’t have the images emblazoned on my very synapses, I didn’t know the identity of the person who had downloaded the vile stuff, and I had every faith that my boss, a person for whom I had great respect and admiration, would handle the situation appropriately.
Weeks later, I discovered that this extremely liberal east coast college had disappeared the incident. The network logs had been wiped clean, the hard drive had been destroyed, and my questions about whether the FBI had been notified were skillfully evaded.
I was naive.
I watched my coworker, the guy who initially found the child porn, literally make himself sick as he struggled with whether or not to circumvent the academic administration by reporting the issue directly to law enforcement. Unlike me, he wasn’t sure we should trust they had been notified. I decided he was probably right when subtly, and then not so subtly, he was pressured into resigning his position. On his last day, my coworker told me more about the guy who had downloaded the materials.
He was a student in the childhood education program.
That was the beginning of the end for my library career. Over time, I found that this was not the only point at which my sense of right and wrong diverged from the philosophical underpinnings of 21st century librarianship. But I’ll save those stories for another day.
Today my concern is that a subset of librarians continue to aid and abet pedophiles in the name of free speech and privacy. Their mission to promote intellectual freedom by ensuring patron confidentiality nearly always seems to trump their responsibility to protect our children from pedophiles.
Librarians cite the protection of personal liberties as a reason for withholding records or failing to report crimes to law enforcement. They don’t want to provide The Man with information that might incriminate someone based on their literary proclivities – you know, like child pornography.
Isn’t it time we knocked members of the American Library Association off their high horses, or at least ripped those First Amendment cloaks from their shoulders? Here’s a thought: maybe a little critical thinking could help librarians distinguish between genuine criminal activity and odd or embarrassing taste in literature. Guided by something as simple as good judgment, librarians should be able to report those who download child pornography without inadvertently snaring law-abiding patrons in a net cast too wide.
Unfortunately, after attending library school, I can tell you unequivocally that critical thinking and good judgment are not part of the curriculum.
And that’s what makes supporting librarian heroes like Brenda Biesterfeld and protesting public library policies that enable criminality all the more important. Make it your business to find out what would happen if Donny Chrisler was downloading child porn at your library, and if necessary, stick your neck out like Brenda Biesterfeld.
Autographed Letter Signed,
JENN Q. PUBLIC
*Jenn Q. Public is an ALS guest commentator. She describes herself as “a reluctant republican and recovered democrat who has struggled for years to reconcile my liberal upbringing with a reality that inspires right-of-center beliefs”.
Please visit her blog “Jenn Q. Public”