Akenson received his B.A. from Yale University and his doctorate from Harvard University. He is Professor of History at Queen's University and Beamish Research Professor at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool. As of 2007 his work included eighteen non-fiction books, including more than a dozen about Irish history, and five novels. Akenson won the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for God's Peoples (1992) and the Trillium Book Award for Conor: The Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien (1994). His book on the Bible, Surpassing Wonder (1998), was short-listed for the 1999 Governor General's Award for nonfiction. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of the Royal Historical Society (UK). He was awarded an honorary doctorate (DLit) by Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand in 2010.
- The Irish Education Experiment. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.
- Education and enmity: the control of schooling in Northern Ireland, 1920-1950. Newton Abbot, England & New York: David & Charles, (1973).
- A Mirror to Kathleen's face. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975.
- Half the World from Home: Perspectives on the Irish in New Zealand, 1860–1950. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1990.
- Small Differences: Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, 1815-1922: An International Perspective. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991.
- God's Peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992.
- The Irish Diaspora. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, The Queens' University, 1993.
- Conor: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien: Volume I, Narrative. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994
- Conor, A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien: Volume II, Anthology. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994.
- If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997.
- Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998.
- Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.
- An Irish History of Civilization, Volume I. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005.
- An Irish History of Civilization, Volume II. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005.
- Some Family: The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007.
- "1993- Donald Akenson".
- "Honorary Doctorates for chemist, diaspora expert" (Press release). Victoria University of Wellington. Scoop. 23 February 2010. Retrieved 15 June 2014.