Michener Library at UNC Celebrates 40 Years
Michener Library is one of the landmarks of UNC, yet surprisingly few modern readers — and even fewer UNC students — know about the remarkable life of the library’s namesake.
“I live for libraries. To me, they are the very essence of my life,” James A. Michener said in his dedication speech for the new Michener Library on the UNC campus, 40 years ago this year.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the dedication of the Michener Library, a celebration was held Friday afternoon, Nov. 2 in the library itself, at which speakers addressed both the history of the library and the life of the writer.
Michener arrived in Greeley as a young teacher looking to take additional classes at what was then the Colorado Normal School in 1936, decades before he would become a famous writer. His time in Greeley was a fond memory for him, although he soon entered the Navy to fight in World War II, rising to rank of officer for his service in the South Pacific.
Michener’s time in the South Pacific was the impetus for his first novel, “Tales of the South Pacific.” which later became the musical “South Pacific.” It actually took a near-death experience, though, for Michener to decide he wanted to be a novelist.
Stephen J. May, one of Michener’s more famous biographers, spoke at the anniversary celebration on Friday afternoon and talked about Michener’s decision to become a writer after he almost died in a plane crash in the Navy in 1944.
“Later that night,” May said, “Michener walked along the airstrip and realized that most of his life had been trivial — he had drifted from event to event in his life without really making an impact. That was the night he decided he was going to be a great man. This meant that instead of going to the officer’s club at night for a few beers, he would go home and start a novel — which became ‘Tales of the South Pacific.’”
Michener never looked back. As May put it in his seminar, “This decision to become great led him to pursue one of his deepest talents.”
Michener was nothing if not meticulous, and stated that, on average, he researched his books for about four years before writing them. His books were often historical fiction that looked at and dissected the history of a particular region — his books “Texas” and “Poland” are both good examples of this; several inches thick with a cast of characters nothing short of epic, they demonstrate Michener’s ability to really put the essence of a place on paper while capturing history in the often heartbreaking struggles of his characters.
Michener’s monumental discourse on Colorado — “Centennial” — led him back to Greeley in 1970. He based his fictional Colorado town in that book on Greeley and wanted to return to conduct his research. It was then that university officials told him they wanted to give the library his name.
After May’s seminar on Michener’s life, those at the celebration were treated to a recording of Michener’s original dedication speech, in which he spoke on the importance of libraries, and the honor bestowed upon him.
“The library is the temporary resting place where the great ideas of the world are kept in order,” he said. “The great aspect of a library is to have its wares free to all.”
Today, a simple walk through the Michener Library reveals a world that the man himself never could have guessed would exist. Not only has the library added thousands of physical volumes to its shelves, but it has also moved online, giving access to more information than Michener could have dreamed possible.
He was prophetic on one point, though, which he addressed in his dedication speech in the early 1970s.
“I think a great deal about the library in the year 2000,” Michener said. “I think it will be an area for the recovery of information.”
Michener Library certainly has become that today.
From the UNC Mirror.