Seattle Public Library fires foreign-books librarian Natalie Notkin on February 2, 1932.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 4/06/2012
  • Essay 3971
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 Dismissal

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). 

The "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. 

As of 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.

First Accusation

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 Party. 

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.

Another Accuser

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.

Library Politics

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 state:

"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 mail.

Support from the Community

In the months leading up to Natalie Notkin’s dismissal, a number of Seattle 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.

Legal Action

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 Libraries. 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. 

She remained 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.

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, 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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