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The four murals located in the historic Reading Room of the new Main Library were commissioned in 1934 as part of a Civil Works Administration project. John David Hatch, Jr., Assistant Director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, directed the project, painted by artists Elizabeth Tracy and Arthur Willis Oakman.  

The murals depict the ten divisions of knowledge that make up the Dewey decimal cataloguing system, and include:

  • “Religion,” on the east wall of the Delivery Room, featuring the City Seal of Cambridge, flanked by wreaths labeled General Works, Philosophy, Religion, Sociology and Philology.
  • “Fine Arts,” on the west wall of the Delivery Room, with a historic clock at its center, flanked with banners titled Literature, History, Useful Arts, Fine Arts and Pure Science.
  • “History of Books and Paper,” a series of three panels on the east end of the Reading Room, depicts the contributions of Babylon, ancient Egypt, China, Greece and Rome and medieval Europe.
  • “The Development of the Printing Press,” on the west wall of the Delivery Room, is the largest of the set, and follows the evolution of the printing press from Guttenberg in 1449 through the invention of the cylindrical press by Hoe and Co. in 1820. At the center is the 1639 Stephen Daye press of Cambridge, the first press in America.


Elizabeth Tracy graduated with honors in Fine Arts from Radcliffe College in 1933. She then studied at the Art Student's League in New York City from 1934-35. In 1940 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Painting.  She married Pierre Montminy in 1941 and moved to Columbia, MO, where she was a professor in the Art Department at the University of Missouri until 1981. Upon her death in 1992, she left her estate to the Boone County Historical Society in Columbia, which constructed the Montminy Art Gallery to showcase regional artists and display the work of Elizabeth Tracy and Pierre Montminy. According to the Historical Society’s records, she created five other WPA murals:

  • "The Founding of Saugus" (1936) at the Saugus, MA Fire & Police Building
  • "The Suffolk Resolves: Oppression and Revolt in the Colonies" (1938) in the Milton, MA Post Office
  • "Terror of the Wilderness" (1938-39) Medford, MA City Hall
  • "Chicago: Railroad Centre of the Nation" (1940) Downers Grove, IL Post Office
  • "The Bathers" (1941) Kennebunkport, ME Post Office


Arthur Willis Oakman, born in Neponset in 1910, was a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Other works include murals in the children’s ward of the municipal hospital (Cambridge?) and in the Old Harbor Village Housing Project in South Boston, Massachusetts, the first public housing development in New England.