NEH funds development of first-ever online, bilingual portal to several Franco American archives

A University of Maine initiative to create a first-ever bilingual portal to Franco American heritage records from archives in the United States and Canada has received a nearly $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Franco American Programs at UMaine, which is spearheading the Franco American Portal, also was awarded $10,000 from the Maine Bicentennial Commission for a similar project titled “Where Were You.” That effort involves developing an online public history, genealogy and map of Franco American populations in Maine. 

Researchers of history and culture of the French Canadian and Acadian diaspora of New England sometimes struggle to find primary sources when pertinent records are not catalogued with relevant identifiers, or are otherwise difficult to access, says Susan Pinette, director of UMaine’s Franco American Programs. The online, bilingual Franco American Portal will make these Franco American records more visible, searchable and accessible to researchers, educators, students, genealogists and the general public, says Pinette, also a professor of modern languages. 

The University of Southern Maine Franco-American Collection; University of Maine at Fort Kent Acadian Archives; Assumption College’s French Institute, Worcester, Massachusetts; and Saint Anselm College Msgr. Wilfrid H. Paradis Archives and Special Collections, Manchester, New Hampshire, joined UMaine’s Franco American Programs in developing the online gateway. Jacob Albert, project manager for UMaine’s Franco American Programs, guides portal development, and Pinette oversees it.

“Collaboration has been so important to every aspect of this project. Our portal is meant to help people discover disparate materials that are hard to find, but do so in a way that relies on the good work that collecting institutions do to preserve these materials and make them accessible,” Albert says. “This model allows materials that live all over North America to be in conversation with one another in a single space.  The possibilities for research and understanding are so wide and so rich.” 

Letter excerpt
From "Memoirs of Alice Michaud Cyr, 1868–1960"An excerpt of a 1914 letter from Theophile Cyr to his sister.

The website will provide access to books, letters and other correspondence, scrapbooks, family and business records, photographs and other media depicting Franco American history, culture and people, all curated by the portal project team. Portal users will be able to browse and search through the catalog of records featured on the website, which the portal will categorize by indicators like place, family name, or subject. Once a user selects an item to view, the portal will connect them to that item at its original source in the digital sphere or a physical archive.

In addition to connecting users with records from their own universities’ collections, the team behind developing the portal will seek to partner with other institutions across the United States and Canada, including the Library of Congress, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Harvard University and others so the portal could provide access to their archives. The group will also digitize physical records highlighting the Franco American experience. 

The team expects the online gateway to highlight well-known works not typically emphasized as products of Franco American heritage in that way. Pinette says showcasing different records of Franco American individuals, families and institutions from disparate collections in the portal will help broaden a shared understanding of the American experience. 

NEH, one of the largest supporters of humanities programs in the U.S., allocated the grant for the Franco American Portal project as part of a $22.2 million package of awards for 224 initiatives across the U.S. The grants were awarded to top-rated proposals examined by panels of independent and external reviewers.

UMaine’s Franco American Programs strives to increase access to Franco American research through digital scholarship, regular programming, publications and curriculum development. The portal project expands that effort by filling a gap in locating Franco American primary sources, Pinette says. 

“Little of these communities is known, however, outside of the communities themselves and some academic circles,” Pinette says. “The Franco American community’s negotiation of identity from its eighteenth-century inception in the United States through the present day therefore represents an untapped, rich case study of our country’s changing cultural landscape over the past two centuries in language, labor and industrialism, post-industrialism, government, religion, the arts and education,acculturation and assimilation, transnational movement, migration and community building.”

The “Where Were You,” online resource from UMaine’s Franco Americans Programs will showcase where Maine’s Franco families live now, where they lived in 1820, and the social, cultural, and economic conditions of that time. 

Pinette says it will include a  dynamic, layered, sortable and customizable map linking specific contemporary surnames from Franco American towns in Maine to their 1820 parish in French-speaking Canada; written entries detailing local, regional, and parish histories in Francophone Canada in 1820; resources highlighting the music, folkways, foodways and other realities of that time and place, and more. 

UMaine has been active in Franco American studies for more than 50 years. The university established the Franco American Centre in 1972, then created a Franco American Studies Program, still the only one of its kind in the U.S., in the 1990s. 

Contact: Marcus Wolf,