Information for current undergraduates

Compton Collection

The Compton Collection of American History


Jim Compton was born in New Jersey in 1928. His father Lewis Compton was Assistant Secretary and later Acting Secretary of the Navy in the Cabinet of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. At an election rally in 1940, FDR asked the 12-year-old Jim what he wanted to be when he grew up, and Jim said:’A Democrat’. ‘I love it’! said the President.


Jim graduated with a BA in American and Medieval history from Princeton and an MA from the University of Chicago, and was then dismissed from a school in Arizona for refusing to take the teachers’ loyalty oath. Following this brush with McCarthyism, he took a PhD at the LSE, his dissertation forming the basis for his book The Swastika and the Eagle: Hitler, the United States and the Origins of the Second World War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967; London: Bodley, 1968).


From 1963 to 1969, Jim Compton was a lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh. In this period, he inspired a generation of students with a love of American history. He established the North American Studies Committee, a precursor of the American Studies degree programme, and formed an enduring affection for Edinburgh.


Jim returned to the United States in 1969, and after a year in New England took up a professorship at San Francisco State University, from which he retired in 1995. Soon thereafter, out of “deep respect and affection” for the University and the students he taught here, Professor Emeritus Compton donated his collection of books on American history as a “contribution to benefit present and future generations of students in the study of United States history at Edinburgh.” Following this initial donation, he sent to Edinburgh a number of others, seeking to keep the Compton Collection up to date. Former students, including some from Jim’s time as well as their present-day counterparts, have also donated books to the Collection.


There are about 2,000 books in the Collection, comprising a carefully selected and balanced library on the whole of the period since the founding of the Anglophonic colonies. About half the Collection duplicates books in the University Library, performing a useful function in a field that attracts many students chasing finite learning resources. The remainder of the Collection consists of books that are not to be found in the University Library.


The Compton Collection of books on American History is housed in the Student Research Rooms of the School’s Accommodation at Teviot Place. The installation of secure shelving for the Collection would not have been possible without the assistance of the Fennell Fund, for which the University’s Americanists owe a deep debt of gratitude.  The Compton Collection is primarily for the use of students taking Honours courses in American history.


Other members of the University as well as visiting scholars may use the collection subject to the usual regulations of Edinburgh University Library. The books in the Compton Collection do not appear in the Edinburgh University Library’s online catalogue. Instead, a separate catalogue is available to users. First developed by the donor, the catalogue was revised in 2005-2006 by student librarians and Alex Goodall. New additions are added to the catalogue on a regular basis.