Norlin Library was named for George Norlin at the end of his 22 years of University leadership. Raised in Kansas, Professor Norlin began teaching Greek language and literature at CU in 1899. He was named Acting President in 1917 and assumed the permanent post in 1919 until he retired in 1939.
During his tenure he oversaw Charles Klauder's redesign of the Boulder campus, stood up to the Ku Klux Klan when it was a powerful influence in Colorado politics, led the university through the hard years of the Depression, and eloquently defended academic excellence and freedom.
Norlin was popular with the Board of Regents, the Faculty and the Students. He presided over the expansion of the University after World War I. During his presidency, the campus enrollment tripled to 4,500.
George Norlin wrote essays and gave speeches which were critical of the Scopes "monkey" trial. He rebuffed the blandishments of the Ku Klux Klan governor of Colorado, who offered him legislative support in return for firing Jewish and Catholic faculty. After a year in Germany as lecturer on American Civilization at Berlin University in 1933, Norlin spoke and wrote articles warning of the dangers of Nazism and anti-Semitism. Hitler, he told a journalist, was not someone with whom you could go fishing. Unfortunately, few listened to Norlin's warnings. Like Churchill, he had the dubious fate of living just long enough to see his warnings come true.
By 1939, he had raised the prominence of the University of Colorado to rank among the best "medium-sized" institutions of higher education in the nation.
Norlin's tenure as president coincided with Klauder's years at Boulder. The mutual vision and positive working relationship between the two men may account for the success of the architectural achievement. Although the main public entrance to Norlin Library moved to the east side in 1977, the west terrace opening onto the quadrangle remains the sentimental front of the building.
Inscribed over the west entrance of the University Library is a quote suggested by Dr. George Norlin, former president of the University of Colorado. Mr. Klauder, the University architect, asked Dr. Norlin for suggestions and this is one of the two inscriptions over the library entrances.
The phrasing is original, Dr. Norlin said, but the thought was frequently expressed in writing of both Greek and Latin classical authors. Dr. Norlin's wording resembles very closely the thought expressed in Marcus Tullius Cicero's (106-43 BCE) Orator (46 BCE), chapter XXXIV [section 120], which is as follows: "Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum." Translated it reads: "To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child."
To understand fully Dr. Norlin's purpose in suggesting this inscription, read his address, Things that should go without saying, in his volume, Things in the Saddle: Selected Essays and Addresses, published by the Harvard University Press, 1940. His address concludes with the following paragraph:
Above the portal of our new library building there will be this inscription, Who knows only his own generation remains always a child. I hope that the purpose of the University, thus expressed, to enable the student to grow in the full stature of his being through companionship that ranges beyond his day and time, will stand unshaken as long as those words shall endure in stone.
M. Tvlli Ciceronis Orator ad M. Brvtvm (Full text from the Latin Library)
Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?
To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it be woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?
Perhaps Cicero inspired George Santayana to write:
Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Inscribed directly over Norlin's west doors, this is a direct quotation from Dr. George Norlin.
It has been suggested that the two flanking figures are representative of Publius Valerius Publicola, a Roman Consul. Other evidence suggests two Venetians who were pioneering figures in printing and typography.
The figure on the left is holding a book which displays an intertwined dolphin-and-anchor, flanked by "ALDVS" -- the printer's device of Aldus Manutius (1449-1515).
The figure on the right holds a book bearing the symbol of a cross and orb -- the typographer's mark of Nicolas Jenson (1420-1480).