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People's History Library

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Librarian Natalie Notkin, unjustly accused of communism, defends herself in a letter to The Seattle Public Library's Board.

HistoryLink.org Essay 10048 : Printer-Friendly Format

Natalie Notkin (1900-1970) was the Foreign Books librarian at The Seattle Public Library's Central branch from 1927 to 1932.  Born in Kherson, Russia, Notkin emigrated in 1921, earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Washington in 1925, a degree from the University of Washington's Library School in 1927, and become a naturalized citizen in 1928. In 1930, Seattle Police Chief Louis Forbes submitted a (completely unsubstantiated) letter to the United States Congress during that body's investigation into Communist propaganda [chaired by Hamilton Fish, Jr.(1888-1981)] accusing Notkin and 17 other Seattle residents of being Communists. Forbes later informally retracted his accusation. The sole public employee on Forbes's list, Notkin professed astonishment at the charge, declaring that she was not a communist and had never attended any meetings of the Communist Party.  Nevertheless, the Seattle City Council cut her position and salary from the library budget, and, on February 2, 1932, the library board agreed to dismiss her. This People's History includes the text of the letter Notkin wrote to the library board after she had unofficially been asked to resign, but before she received her termination notice.

A Diverse Collection

Notkin had certainly purchased Russian language books as part of the library's collection, in part due to Seattle's burgeoning post-revolution Russian expatriate community.  As of January 1, 1931, the library collection included 11,893 books, 1,514 of which were written in Russian.  The largest number of foreign books in the collection was French, with 2,780 titles, followed by German, with 1,869 titles. The total collection numbered 11,893 titles in languages from Arabic to Yiddish, with total circulation of 37,252.

Notkin asserted that she bought Russian books in the same method as she bought all the other books in the collection: considering reviews of specific books, literary standing of the authors, and buying trends among other libraries. Before being placed, her orders were scrutinized by the library's Book Committee. The library board and chief librarian always had the authority to deny a purchase, or to remove a book from circulation. Head Librarian Judson Jennings (1873-1948) had previously opined that the library's collection must represent differing points of view, and that books should not be barred simply because some library patrons disagreed with the author's point of view.

The Letter

The library's letter of dismissal was dated February 8, 1932, and stamped as having been mailed on February 10, 1932.  Natalie Notkin's letter to the Board of Directors of The Seattle Public Library was dated February 8, 1932. The two letters must have crossed in the mail.

Notkin's letter in full:

"Gentlemen:

"I have been requested by the Board to tender my resignation from the Library Staff.  I feel that the Board has a right to know my motives for refusing to comply with this request, and I have tried to state my motives in this letter, as completely and clearly as I can.

The reason given to me by the Board as the foundation for its request was that an inspection has been made of the Library's Russian collection and that the collection was discovered to contain communist books and some obscene books. I shall deal with the second part first, as it seems to me by far less important and more easily disposed of.

I do not believe that any librarian of decent standing was ever accused of knowingly and consciously getting obscene books into the Library. Books are being continuously objected to on moral grounds, sometimes deservedly, sometimes not, and are taken care of by the Library. It happens even to English books, where the Library's source of information is considerably greater, and the book-reviewing force consists of the entire staff. It had happened to several foreign books, and whenever a book was called to my attention it was treated accordingly.

As far as I can now remember it had happened to two German books, one Swedish and three French books. Of those, the Swedish books appeared on the Providence Public Library list, and later was referred to favorably by the Booklist. Two of the French books were recommended by a University professor, and the third appeared on the Los Angeles Library list.  Of the German books one was the recipient of the Kleist prize in Germany and was also among the books specifically recommended by the Los Angeles Public Library to the readers. The other is in the Library in English.  As an example of the extreme relativity of opinion as to what constitutes obscenity, I must say that the Los Angeles lists, respectively containing the French and German book just mentioned, were described by the assistant there as 'innocuous'!

I have no reason to suppose that certain books, however highly recommended by some reviewer, might not have seemed objectionable to the Russian borrowers, and if called to my attention they would have been treated by me in the same way as the books in other languages.

The first part of the accusation is more grave and of a nature that affects me not merely as a librarian, but as a citizen. As a citizen I object against the implication that I was getting communist books, getting them, moreover, for propaganda purposes. I can truthfully say that to my knowledge the Russian language collection has no communist propaganda. I did not believe, nor do I believe now, that a book of fiction describing life in Soviet Russia is a book of communist propaganda. On the contrary, most of the fiction books published in Russia, which were purchased by the Library, present a picture of life so dreary, so horrible, that its effect would be rather the reverse of propaganda.

It would be unreasonable to deny that books published in Soviet Russia have a different approach to things from books published by Russian émigrés. It would be just as unreasonable to suppose that on the part of the readers with one viewpoint there have been no objections against the books published by the opposite side. I have mentioned this in my annual report, for the Board to read, as far back as the report for the year 1928, and then again in the report for the year 1930.

Knowing that the mere fact of buying books published in Soviet Russia is an offense in the eyes of some people, I did not consider it possible to assume the entire responsibility for so serious a matter, and besides mentioning it in my annual reports I have talked to Mr. Jennings on the subject.  I was assured that the Library has a right and a duty to have books presenting different sides of a controversial question, and I knew that to be the policy of all public libraries.  In spite of this assurance I confined the purchase of books published in Soviet Russia to works of fiction, and such non-fiction as was especially recommended for its impartiality, or which dealt with subjects entirely unrelated to politics.

Being physically unable to read every foreign book which came to the Library, and having depended solely upon reviews and the literary standing of the authors, I cannot state that no mistakes had been possible, and that no objectionable books could have slipped in. In fact, upon several occasions, after a book had been purchased due to favorable review, it has been found unsuitable and stacked immediately. It is entirely possible that there are other books which should have been treated likewise, but had not been, because the objectionable places in them have escaped my notice.

It had been rather a matter of pride to me that I was ordering books which from the reviews appeared to have literary value, impartiality or descriptive vividness, irrespective of the place of their publication, and have in every way been trying to follow the principle of librarianship: non-partisan fairness.

In spite of the fact, however, I feel myself to be completely innocent in the matter, and the accusation of the Board unjustified.  I would have signed my resignation when requested to do so, moved by simple professional pride, should this be an isolated occurrence.  But this appears to be part of a much larger thing, consisting of a series of events, which I shall make an effort to stop.

At the time the first event took place, namely Mr. Forbes' letter to the Hamilton Fish, Jr. Committee, I had not taken legal action upon the recommendation of some of my friends, and some of the members of the Library Board, who assured me that such rumors die a natural death if left alone.  For the sake of the institution with which I was connected, knowing the inevitable publicity that would be the result of any legal action, I have taken no steps to refute the libel.  I now consider this to have been a mistake, and I feel that steps must be taken now, lest it should proceed any further.

It has been conveyed to me, that should I voluntarily sign a resignation, the records of the meeting at which this was discussed would be cancelled. I know that I have done nothing to justify the withdrawal of the confidence on the part of the Library Board, nothing of which if discussed or recorded would hurt me, nor have I been given any opportunity to see and inspect the records in question.

I am naturally refraining from work at the Library until I receive an official notification from the Board as to my status.  In refusing to tender my resignation I am not trying to defend my position with the Library, but my standing as a citizen of this city and country.

Respectfully submitted,

Natalie B. Notkin

(Natalie Notkin letter to Seattle Public Library Board of Directors, Folder "Natalie Notkin"...)."

Postscript

After her dismissal from The Seattle Public Library, Notkin hired attorneys to represent her at a hearing demanding that she be reinstated with back pay. Calling the charges "maliciously false," Notkin told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "I am willing to stand on my record and reputation.  I have done nothing I wish to conceal" (February 21, 1932). On May 27, 1932, an Alternative Writ Mandate was served on the members of the library board and Head Librarian Jennings. The library board filed a demurrer and, on June 17, 1932, the demurrer was sustained and the writ was quashed.

In 1937, Natalie Notkin was hired by University of Washington Libraries.  She worked there until until 1941, left for a few years, and then worked there in the Catalog Department from January 1949 to December 1968.

Sources:
Folder "Staff: Natalie Notkin," Seattle Public Library Archives, Box 4 (Personnel), Seattle Room, Central Library, Seattle, Washington; John Douglas Marshall, Place of Learning, Place of Dreams: A History of The Seattle Public Library (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004); "Librarian, Discharged For 'Red' Books, Asks Hearing," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 21, 1932; "Degrees To Be Given," The Seattle Times, June 14, 1945, p. 10 EriK Dahl (University of Washington Libraries Employment and Payroll Services Manager) email to Paula Becker, April 6, 2012, in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington.


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Natalie Notkin, Seattle, ca. 1931
Courtesy Seattle Post-Intelligencer


Judson Jennings, n.d.
Courtesy The Seattle Public Library


Seattle Public Library (Peter J. Weber, 1906) at 4th Avenue and Madison Street, 1930s
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Interior, The Seattle Public Library, Seattle, 1906
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Seattle's Carnegie Library (Somervell and Coté, 1906)
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