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Seattle Public Library fires foreign-books librarian Natalie Notkin on February 2, 1932.
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On February 2, 1932, The Seattle Public Library's board of directors dismisses Natalie Notkin (1900-1970), who has served as the foreign-books librarian at The Seattle Public Library's Central branch since 1927. Library board meeting minutes indicate that her dismissal is prompted, at least in part, by recent accusations that she has introduced communistic materials into the library's foreign-language collection.
The library board meeting minutes discussing the dismissal
read in full:
"The Board then discussed the question of continuing
the employment of Natalie B. Notkin, the assistant in charge of book
collections in foreign languages.
Because of numerous criticisms regarding Mrs. Notkin and complaints
regarding her selection of Russian books, and also because the City Council had
stricken her position and salary from the library budget, it was unanimously
voted that her services on the library staff be dispensed with, this action to
be effective from February 1, 1932" (Board
Meeting Minutes, p. 348).
Notkin learned of her dismissal in a letter from chief
librarian Judson Jennings (1873-1948), dated February 8, 1932. Jennings's
letter read in full:
"My dear Mrs. Notkin:
"At the regular monthly meeting of the Library Board, held at
the Library on Tuesday, February 2, 1932, it was unanimously voted that your
services on the Library staff be discontinued, this change to be effective from
February 1, 1932.
"Very truly yours" (Seattle Public Library Notkin file).
Russian But Not Red
Natalie Brodskaya Notkin was born in Kherson,
Russia, and graduated from
the Gymnazia in St. Petersburg before
immigrating to the United
States, where she arrived on August 13, 1921. With her husband, James Notkin (1899-1967),
she became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1928. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer later
described her husband as "a former officer in the Russian white army under
Kolchak" (February 22, 1932).
"white army" fought in opposition to the Bolshevik ("Red")
army. Aleksandr Kolchak (1874-1920) was
Supreme Leader of the White forces. One
of the many letters of support eventually sent to The Seattle Public Library on
Natalie Notkin's behalf described the couple as having "suffered much
through the Red Revolution, and fled to Harbin [Manchuria]" where Natalie
Notkin worked for several years as a secretary for the Y.M.C.A. before the
Notkins proceeded to the United States (Mrs. Arthur Jeffrey Krauss to Mrs. E.
L. Danks, February 27, 1932, Seattle Public Library Notkin folder).
Natalie Notkin, Librarian
Natalie Notkin began working for The Seattle Public Library
as a clerical assistant on November 2, 1925. After graduating from the University
of Washington's library
school in 1927, Notkin was placed in charge of The Seattle Public Library's
foreign language books. Purchasing books
in foreign languages was an important part of Notkin's job. She had certainly purchased Russian language
books to expand the library's collection, in part due to increased demand as Seattle's Russian
expatriate community expanded rapidly in the decade following the Russian
revolution in 1917 and overthrow and subsequent assassination of Tsar Nicholas II
(1868-1918) and his family.
January 1, 1931, the library's non-English language 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 collection included books in languages
from Arabic to Yiddish, with total circulation of 37,252.
On November 4, 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. Specifically, Forbes accused
Notkin of distributing communist books among Seattle's Russian and Finn communities. Forbes later informally retracted his
accusation, stating that he had not thought the letter would ever be published
under his name. 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
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 could deny
a purchase, or to remove any book from circulation. Head Librarian Judson Jennings had previously
supported the view 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.
In early September 1931, the library board received a letter
from the Seattle Branch of the National League of Americans of Russian Origin
complaining of Bolshevistic literature in The Seattle Public Library's
collection. Two library board members
visited the president of that organization and asked for a list of such books,
but no such list was ever submitted.
One library board member, acting independently, asked a
Russian friend to look over the library's Russian language collection. This unnamed friend identified five offensive
titles, which the library withdrew from circulation. The names of three of these books have survived
in the archives of The Seattle Public Library: V. M. Friche's 1928 biography of Leo Tolstoi
(1828-1910), Isaac Babel's (1894-1941) 1926 short story collection Red Cavalry, and Alexander Skobelev's
(1886-1923) 1922 play Hunger. The books were removed from circulation.
The library filed a 1932 budget with the Mayor's office on
July 1, 1931. The budget totaled
$449,982, which was the same amount budgeted for 1931. The mayor then submitted this budget to the Seattle City Council. After several budget
hearings, on November 23, 1931, the city council passed Ordinance No. 61936
authorizing a $402,192 budget -- $305,225 of that for salaries, which were
listed as a lump sum and not itemized by position -- and appropriating funds
from the Library Fund to cover the expense.
This was $47,790 less than requested, and would require severe cuts to
existing library spending. (As the Great
Depression deepened, all city departments faced drastic funding
reductions. For the library, these would
continue in subsequent years, resulting in draconian reductions in staff,
services, and collections.) On December
1, 1931, the library board instructed chief librarian Judson Jennings to
compile a new itemized budget for the authorized $402,192.
Judson's new 1932 budget was discussed at the January 12,
1932, library board meeting. Minutes of
that meeting state:
"The Board had before it an apportionment of this fund
made by the City Council and also an apportionment made by the librarian [Jennings] at the request
of the Library Board. It was felt that
the first step toward a decision regarding the distribution of the fund was to
arrive at some conclusion as to the relative powers of the Library Board and
the City Council in making expenditures from this fund" (Library Board Minutes, p. 337).
In other words, the city council had (in the
library board's opinion) overstepped its authority by preparing its own
itemized library budget.
Judson Jennings's itemized budget is included in the library
board meeting minutes for January 12, 1932, and includes a $1,560 yearly salary
for Natalie Notkin for charge work with foreign-born patrons. The city council's itemized library budget
does not apparently survive in either the archives of The Seattle Public Library
or in the Seattle Municipal Archives.
Based on the library board's subsequent actions toward Notkin, and on
their reasons for dismissing her as expressed in the February 2, 1932, minutes,
the city council version of the budget must have explicitly excluded Notkin and
her position. Whether any other
employees were stricken in the city council's version is unknown, due to absence
of archival materials. But it's clear that if Natalie Notkin was stricken from the city-council-prepared
budget, that change was the only one the library board accepted, and they did not
accept it immediately. The minutes
"It was therefore unanimously voted on motion of Mrs.
Chadwick, seconded by Mr. Hutson, that the distribution of the library fund
recommended by the librarian [Jennings] be adopted and that salaries and other expenditures
be made on that basis" (p. 337).
In addition to the budget issue, the January 12, 1932,
library board minutes document that body's decision to consider testing the
question of who had jurisdiction over specific library budget items, the city
council or the library board, in court.
It is difficult to know what might have swayed the library
board between January 12, 1932, when Notkin's job was reconfirmed, and February
2, 1932, when the board, with the exception of Samuel Koch (1875-1944), who left
the meeting early, voted unanimously to dispense with her services. Library board chair John W. Efaw (1861-1939)
later told to The Seattle Times that
the reason for Notkin's discharge was "that she bought and was active in
the distribution of Russian Communistic literature" (February 23, 1932).
A Librarian and a Citizen
Before her dismissal, Notkin had apparently been unofficially
requested to resign. A period of several months evidently elapsed between this informal
request and the time she received the letter from Seattle Public Library chief
librarian Judson Jennings alerting her to her dismissal. During that interim, Notkin wrote a stirring
letter to the library board explaining why she refused to comply with their
request for her resignation and defending her book-ordering methodology. The letter read, in part:
"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. ...
"I was assured [by chief librarian Judson Jennings] 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. ...
"I feel myself to be completely innocent in the matter, and
the accusation of the Board unjustified" (Natalie Notkin letter to Seattle
Public Library Board of Directors, Folder "Natalie Notkin"...).
The library's letter dismissing Notkin 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. It is likely that the letters crossed in the
Support from the Community
In the months leading up to Natalie Notkin’s dismissal, a number
residents wrote to the library board vouching for her good character. Among those writing were Seattle
accountant George T. Henderson; post office mail fraud inspector John Swenson;
physician D. V. Ogievsky; Y.M.C.A. senior secretary Bert G. Mitchell (1881-1954),
for whom Notkin had worked in Harbin, Manchuria, en route to the United States
and who later lived with the Notkins in Seattle; University of Washington history
professor Ebba Dahlin; and engineer W. C. Morse, for whom James Notkins
worked. The letters all expressed
complete faith that Natalie Notkin was in no way a communist or communist
sympathizer. Dahlin’s letter sums up the
general sentiment: “I know her entire family very well, and it would be
practically impossible for any of them to join the Communist Party, and such a
desire on their part would be unthinkable” (September 9, 1931, Notkins file,
Seattle Public Library).
The letters of support continued after Notkin was fired,
including many from library patrons who used non-Russian books from the Foreign
Collection and through that patronage had made Notkin’s acquaintance. The letters expressed unwavering support, and
sadness for the loss her dismissal meant to library users who wanted books in
languages other than English. More than 100
Russian-language readers signed a letter defending Natalie Notkin and
protesting her dismissal.
After her dismissal from The Seattle Public Library, Notkin
hired attorney Hylas E. Henry (1893-1943) 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).
Notkin evidently wrote to Judson Jennings on March 12, 1932,
but her letter does not appear to have survived. Jennings's
March 28, 1932, letter back to Notkin references the many letters of
support and clearly attempts to shift blame for her dismissal to the city council
and implying that someone other than the Library Board had questioned Notkins'
patriotism with the city council:
"In order to relieve you of the misapprehension which
is causing you annoyance, may I say that neither the board nor any of its
members made any finding that you was [sic] a Communist. As you are aware the City Council in making
up the Library Budget for 1932 discounted your position and salary from their
appropriation ... . The complaints made
to the City Council on which they acted came from outside the Library
Department" (Seattle Public Library Notkin file).
Samuel Koch, Rabbi at Temple de Hirsch and the library
board's vice president, told the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer that he had not been present at the meeting where
Notkin's dismissal was decided, and that his mind was still open on the
matter. Another board member, Alice
Hargrave (1867-1939), told the paper that she knew nothing about the
controversy. Other library board members
declined to comment on the matter.
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.
On August 2, 1932, the library board -- which had recently
experienced substantial turnover -- was
presented with yet more letters supporting Notkin. The minutes note, "President Wright
expressed the feeling of the Board that since this matter had been investigated
and settled by the previous Library Board, the present Board would consider it
a closed incident and on motion of Mrs. Doig the Secretary was instructed to
acknowledge the letters to that effect" (p. 360).
Notkin's Successful Subsequent Career
In 1937 Natalie Notkin was hired by University of Washington
She worked there until 1941, left for a few years, and returned in January 1949. She remained at UW Libraries for the rest of her career, retiring in December 1968. She first worked as a Reader's Advisor in the
General Reading Collection, then did extensive reclassification of the
Northwest Collection, and finally served as a Russian specialist and cataloger
in the Catalog Division.
active in Seattle's
Russian ex-pat community, raising money for war relief supplies during World
War II. The Seattle Times noted the presence of her husband, James Notkin, at
the gala Opera House opening night concert on April 21, 1962. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) conducted, and
James Notkin -- described as having last heard the maestro conduct in Petrograd
(then St. Petersburg)
before the Russian revolution -- greeted Stravinsky in their native
language. It seems likely that Natalie
Notkin may also have been present.
The Notkins did not, apparently, hold a grudge against The
Seattle Public Library or the city: James Notkin's engineering firm, James B. Notkins & Associates, helped build the library's Magnolia Branch, as well as a
major part of the mechanical systems for the Seattle World's Fair grounds -- now Seattle Center.
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, clipping from Seattle Public Library Archives; "Degrees To Be Given," The Seattle Times, June 14, 1925, p. 10; "Library Board To Test Powers In Court Action," Ibid., January 13, 1932, p. 9; "Library Aide's Friends Protest At Her
Dismissal," Ibid., February 23,
1932, p. 9; "Librarian Fights For Reinstatement," Ibid., May 28, 1932, p. 3; "How Do
You Say It -- In Russian?" Ibid., April
27, 1962, p. 21; "Madrona Tree Influences Design of Library Branch," Ibid., July 12, 1964, p. 109;
"James Notkin, 67, Engineer," Ibid.,
January 24, 1966, p. 43; "Notkin, Natalie B.," Ibid., July 6, 1970, p. 53; Investigation of Communist Propaganda: Hearings Before a Special Committee To Investigate Communist Activities In The
United States of the House of Representatives, Seventy-First Congress, Part I – Volume 5 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1931), p.
156; "Natalie Brodskaya Notkin -- 1900-1970," Washington Library Letter, July 15, 1970, p. 1; Seattle Public Library Board Meeting Minutes, Seattle Public Library Archives, Seattle Room, Central Library, Seattle, Washington; Seattle City
Council Ordinance No. 61936, “An Ordinance authorizing expenditures by the Library Department of the City of Seattle for the year 1932 for salaries, certain supplies, expenses and betterments, and making appropriation therefor,” approved November 23, 1931; 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.
Note: This essay replaces a previous essay on the same subject.
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Natalie Notkin, Seattle, ca. 1931
Courtesy Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Seattle Public Library (Peter J. Weber, 1906) at 4th Avenue and Madison Street, 1930s
Judson Jennings, n.d.
Courtesy The Seattle Public Library
Soviet poster (What the October revolution gave worker and peasant women), 1920
Courtesy Victoria E. Bonnell
Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle (Bebb and Gould, 1927), 1950s
James B. Notkin and Natalie B. Notkin grave, Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery, Seattle, March 30, 2012
HistoryLink.org photo by Paula Becker