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Shackleton was born in Todmorden, now in West Yorkshire. He was educated at Oriel College, Oxford and taught French at Brasenose College, Oxford from 1946 to 1966. He also served as college librarian from 1948 to 1966. From 1966 to 1979 he served as Bodley's Librarian, the director of the Bodleian Library. From 1979 to 1986 he was Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at the university, a position that carried with it a Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford.
He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1986.
He was a bibliophile who amassed a considerable collection of books relating to the Enlightenment, much of which is now in the John Rylands Library. He is the author of Montesquieu: A Critical Biography (Oxford University Press, 1961), a standard introduction to Montesquieu's life and thought as well as to the historical and intellectual background.
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