This summer, Janet Roberts took over as coordinator of the Franco-American Collection, an archive of books, photographs, recipes, records and more at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College. 

Before taking the position, Roberts spent more than 20 years working in the Maine State Archives, where her projects included the preservation of the Lewiston-based French language newspaper Le Messager published from 1917 to the 1960s.

She calls her new position at the Franco-American Collection “perfect,” noting that the challenges of running a one-person operation are offset by the people, the variety and the surprises (snowshoes!) that are a part of every day.

This is horribly unfair, but the title “archivist” doesn’t have a natural ring of excitement to it. What does an archivist do? And what is interesting/exciting about it to you? An archivist saves people’s stories – we preserve the diaries, letters, photographs, sound and movie recordings that were created by us and by the people who came before us. It may not be earth-shattering, but it is always interesting. Some of the day-to-day work is routine filing and cataloguing, but thinking about the differences and similarities between Lewiston in the past and the Lewiston of today, that keeps the work interesting. And there is something very satisfying in bringing order to a box of “stuff” and making it usable for a researcher.

It seems you were destined to take this position, having studied both French and history at Williams College as an undergraduate. The perfect job? Yes, it is the perfect job! It shows the wonders of a liberal arts education – I studied history and French because I was interested in them, but hadn’t done anything with the French during the first decades of my career. Then, these many years later, up pops a job that combines my two interests!

What is it about the French language or French culture that attracted you? Originally, it was a combination of location, and what was offered for classes. I’m from Farmington, so I grew up hearing tourists or Franco-Americans speaking French, and just the idea that other people spoke and thought in other languages was fascinating to me. And when I was in high school and could drive, it seemed very cool and grown-up to be able to go across the border to another country where they spoke another language. I also had the advantage of having a terrific French teacher, Ellsworth Crocker. I was in the lucky class that had him for two years in junior high school and for another four years in high school. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and continued with it in college. I enjoyed speaking the language and really liked many of the French authors I was reading.

Talk about the important role an archive and an archivist play in a culture. The work I do mostly involves preserving the important documents, photos and other media belonging to individuals or to small groups. That’s very important, but archivists and records managers also work for businesses, making sure that the important business records are identified and preserved. And, perhaps most crucial, town and county clerks, the state archives and the National Archives preserve the records at all levels of government, documenting the actions taken by officials and legislatures, providing a foundation for today’s government.

Since starting in August, you’ve had a little bit of time to get familiar with the collection. What are some of the surprises and highlights of the collection? I had no idea how huge snowshoe clubs were in Lewiston, especially in the first half of the 20th century. I can walk in snowshoes, but not much more, so pictures of people racing over hurdles are hard to believe. The whole social aspect — with auxiliary groups, bands and large conventions — illuminates an aspect of Franco-American culture that I wasn’t familiar with.

What’s the most difficult part of your job? It’s a one-person shop, so the juggling is probably the hardest part. I love the variety, but it does mean that no matter how carefully I plan my day, if a researcher comes in to use the collection, that takes precedence, and whatever I thought I was going to be doing has to change.

What’s the best part? That’s a hard one to pin down! The people are great – the board that I work with, the people who come to use the collection or to participate in our monthly sing-alongs, and the members of the other Franco organizations in town. And then there’s the collection – I’m already fascinated, and I’m looking forward to getting to know it better and to figuring out where the gaps are, and to fill those gaps.

What role/roles do you hope the Franco-American Collection at USM-LAC can play? What would be some ideal outcomes? We would like to continue in our current role, but to become better known. We want people to think of us and check with us when they have letters, diaries, photographs or other papers that document Lewiston’s Franco-Americans. The materials don’t necessarily have to be “Important” with a capital “I” – sometimes, what’s missing from the historical record relates to day-to-day activities.

We also want to be sure we are well known to researchers, whether they are academics or are looking up their family’s past. My predecessor, James Myall, began the task of putting some of the collection online. That is something I want to continue, and to build upon. The Franco-Americans in Lewiston have an amazing history, and we want to be sure that it doesn’t disappear, but is saved, well kept and well used.

Does the Franco-American Collection just have archival materials or do you also collect three-dimensional objects? We do have some wonderful artifacts in addition to our archival materials. There are more limits on what we can take in, just because of space considerations, but we do collect artifacts.

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