He graduated from Harvard University in 1960, attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, and earned a Ph.D. (D. Phil.) in history from Oxford in 1964, where he studied with Richard Cobb, among others. He worked as reporter at The New York Times from 1964 to 1965. Joining the Princeton University faculty in 1968, he was appointed Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of European History and was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1982. He served as President of the American Historical Association in 1999.
On July 1, 2007, he transferred to emeritus status at Princeton, and was appointed Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the Harvard University Library, succeeding Sidney Verba.
In 1983 he delivered the Huizinga Lecture in Leiden, the Netherlands, under the title The Meaning of Mother Goose.
Darnton is a pioneer in the field of the history of the book. He is writing about electronic publishing. He is founder of the Gutenberg-e program, sponsored by Mellon Foundation.
Darnton is a trustee of the New York Public Library.
Awards and honors
His first major prize was the Leo Gershoy Award for The Business of Enlightenment in 1979. He has also received the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism for The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996).
In 1999 he was named a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, an award given by the French government, in recognition of his work. In 2004 he was awarded the Gutenberg prize by the International Gutenberg Society.
In 2005 he received an award for distinguished achievement from the American Printing History Association.
On 13 February 2012 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal 2011 by President Barack Obama, for his determination to make knowledge accessible to everyone.
In 2013 he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca lifetime achievement award.
His brother is the retired New York Times editor and author John Darnton, and his father was the war correspondent Byron Darnton.