DNA Digital Data Storage: The Human as Archive — Or, I, Library — Or, Probably the Plot of a Network TV Show a Few Years From Now — A very sci-fi Archives Month Blog Post!

Written by Logan Rains, 2nd year

“I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities I have visited.”
– Jorge Luis Borges

In the popular imagination, librarians and archivists are usually dusty old creatures with skin as paper thin as the pages of the books they so carefully read by the light of a dim table lamp deep, deep in the recesses of some cluttered, cavernous, repository. When they shush, in their hearts they’re sighing some lament like “I was born in the wrong century,” while imagining, I don’t know, some kind of Victorian setting with cobblestones and gas lamps?

But in my imagination we’ve got a streak of mad scientist running through us. We’re inheritors of Vannevar Bush’s futurism and Ada Lovelace’s pioneering computer programming. Information professionals are on the cutting edge of technology. We sift through 0’s and 1’s. We are the gatekeepers of the entirety of humanity’s knowledge. We know things.

But the entirety of human knowledge takes up a lot of space. Every archive faces the same challenge of space. Physical space, storage space, cost of space. When I watch the iconic ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark I used to think ‘Ooh, what wonderful mysteries must be in this warehouse full of wooden boxes!’


Now I think ‘God what I wouldn’t do for that much storage space,’ and ‘that doesn’t look temperature controlled,’ or ‘those boxes look vulnerable to infestation.’ But mainly I salivate at the idea of row upon row, and square foot upon square foot of beautiful, empty, open space.

The problem has been solved many times over. Microfiche, magnetic tape, CDs. Each time: the wave of the future. But each new technology renders the last version obsolete, and though rich in spirit, libraries and archives tend to be poor in, you know, cash — and it’s expensive to migrate everything we’ve ever known to new technology. But we’ve still got that mad scientist in us. And today we’re closer than ever to defeating the issue of space. Now we’ve got DNA storage.

In 2013, researchers artificially encoded information in strands of DNA. They stored all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and part of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Just two years later, in 2015, researchers in Zurich reported that they have refined storage techniques to the extent that they predict error-free recovery after as much as a million (!) years if samples are kept in storage at a temperature of -10 degrees Celsius (14 Fahrenheit), or a pedestrian 2000 years if stored in 10 degrees Celsius (a balmy 50 Fahrenheit). Right now we have the ability to store vast quantities of information on DNA, and the next step is retrieval. At the moment you have to retrieve all of the stored information in order to look at just a piece of it, but Microsoft Research is making strides on random-access storage. It seems likely that within our lifetimes we’ll be able to store nearly an unlimited quantity of data on a few grams of DNA.


Pictured: A pencil and some synthesized DNA. Photo Credit: Tara Brown | University of Washington

We’re still in the very early stages of this technology, which means its techniques are still being perfected, and it’s still quite expensive. But I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to imagine a future in which we implant a couple strands of DNA into each and every human so that, when we inevitably colonize the Milky Way and beyond, every person carries with them a record of all knowledge ever conceived by our species. Or maybe we’ll genetically engineer a human being and include the entire history of human information inside their DNA, then exalt them in the Church of the Archive like some kind of new agey, beautiful, eternally employed Priest of Diana kind of thing, or (for the commitment-phobic) a vestal virgin.

What’s important is that DNA lasts, and unlike magnetic tape, human beings will always have cause to interact with it. As one researcher noted: “DNA storage should be apocalypse-proof. After a hypothetical global disaster, future generations might eventually find the stores and be able to read them.” And I know that’s the kind of thing you’d have a researcher say in a movie right before cutting to a scene of the world on fire, and centuries worth of scientific and technological progress set on fire along with it, followed by a few millennia worth of survivors trying to relearn crop rotation, never mind the poor slobs attempting to sequence artificial DNA. But for now, lets revel in this huge leap in information storage technology, and try to remember where you were the day you found out we can fit an entire library on strands of DNA the size of a few grains of sand.

Further Reading:






Copyright Information: Blog content, current and past, belongs to the SAA-SC member credited. Please credit the University of Wisconsin-Madison Society of American Archivists-Student Chapter Archives Month Blog AND the creator if citing. Please contact the individual or uwarchivists@gmail.com for copyright details.

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