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The Acton Library is the collection of John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, Baron Acton, who was Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge from 1895 until 1902. It contains around 60,000 volumes ranging from the 15th to 19th centuries, mainly on the ecclesiastical and political history of Europe since the Reformation. The library was partly inherited and partly collected by Acton, with the strong foreign component influenced by his family history. Part of the collection came from his father's English family estate, which included items collected by his paternal grandfather, an English adventurer who became Prime Minister of Bourbon Naples. Acton's mother was a Dalberg: a family of German nobles whose seat was at Herrnsheim near Worms. Through her, Acton inherited the books of his great-great-uncle, the last Elector-Archbishop of Mainz, who was one of Napoleon's supporters in Germany, and whose interests included the history of Spain, Portugal and Russia.

A Roman Catholic - and therefore barred at that time from taking a degree in England - Acton received his historical training at the University of Munich, where he studied under Ernest von Lasaulx, whose library of philosophy and ancient history he later bought, adding yet another dimension to the collection. He bought other private collections, as well as adding single items by purchase or gift, particularly of material relating to the history of the Papacy from the Counter-Reformation to the French Revolution. He was successful in buying up material from dispersed monastic libraries or duplicates from university libraries in Italy, Germany and Portugal.

In the 1890s Acton suffered a financial crisis, and his books were bought by the great library benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, to save the library from dispersal. Acton kept the use of the library until his death, when Carnegie presented it to John Morley, on the understanding that it should go to "one of the ancient universities"; because of Acton's association, Morley chose Cambridge. Once it had been catalogued, the University published partial schedules of four important parts of the Acton collection, that is classes 17 & 38: Spain and Portugal; class 34: Germany, Austria and Hungary; and class 48: political & social philosophy, economics and law.

Acton's library was that of the working historian, not of a great bibliophile or book collector. George Watson states that Acton saw a library as "an armoury of polemical weapons waiting to be used" in the revealing of truth and unmasking of conspiracies. The library's strengths lie in the completeness and unity of the collections, rather than in individual items or fine copies.

The collection is particularly good for church history, especially the history of the Papacy, and on local history in France, Germany and Southern Italy. The German sections are strong in material relating to the Reformation and on the Thirty Years' War. The important French component of the collection was built up by Acton himself: at Cambridge, Acton lectured on the French revolution, and his library predictably contains much material relating to this period. There is also a good collection of philosophy from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

References and further reading:

  • Cambridge University Library bulletin. Extra series. Acton collection: classes 17 & 38: Spain and Portugal; class 34: Germany, Austria and Hungary; class 48: political & social philosophy, economics and law.(Cambridge, 1908-1910). N.B. These published bulletins contained only books which had previously not been held in the University Library. R504.20; Cam.d.11.5.3- ; Acton.d.sel.112-
  • Owen Chadwick. 'The Acton Library' in Cambridge University Library: the great collections (Cambridge, 1998). Much of the information in this description is taken from this source. B926.4; A650.198; 9851.b.277.15
  • George Watson. The library of Lord Acton (Sandars lectures in bibliography, 1992). 878.b.94
  • George Watson. Lord Acton's History of liberty: a study of his library (Aldershot, 1994). 878.c.203; Cam.c.994.3