Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, The DNA Dilemma for Archives

Ostraka aren’t pretty, but in their day were they ever powerful! These little pieces of pottery were used by a citizen (male, free man) of Athens in the fifth century B.C.E. to vote on the person in the city that he wished to be expelled. After these ballots were counted, they were thrown away. While we think of ostraka as objects (from which the English word “ostracize” is derived), they are documents: they have a base (pottery), an impression on the base (a name scratched on it manually) and convey information (he’s the one I want out of here).

 Archives usually have associated objects that don’t meet the criteria of a document: a glove in a court case file, a model in a patent application, a lock of hair among a set of personal papers. But some associated objects, like ostraka, have the characteristics of a document. Human rights investigators at sites of bombings may find pieces of weaponry with identifying numbers on them. These show maker and model: conveying information over space and time, on a metal base with an impression made by mechanical casting when the weapon was produced. These fragments alone they don’t tell us who used weapon, just as ostraka do not tell us if the person named was actually expelled, but they have evidentiary value.

 Smaller and even mightier than ostraka, DNA samples amplify the power of small material. Clearly the result of the analysis of a DNA sample is a document, whether recorded in a database or on a spreadsheet or in a report. But what of the sample itself? The language of DNA analysis talks about “reading” the DNA, and the elements of the DNA are chemical bases (a different sense of the same word archivists use to describe a document). DNA certainly conveys information over space and time, but there is no “impression on the base” as the classic definition of a document requires: the information is encoded within the DNA by natural process. In other words, DNA conveys information, but in an entirely different way than a document in archival terms. If, then, the DNA sample is an “associated object” but not a document, the sample is unlikely to be covered by institutional regulations for deciding whether or not to retain it. This question is not trivial: a recent investigation using DNA in the Netherlands found a Dutch prosecutor ordering the “voluntary sampling of up to 21,500 Dutchmen based on familial profiling, and the obligatory sampling of 1,500 men of special interest to the case,” the New York Times reported.  The results of these analyses are records of the prosecution, to be disposed of in accordance with Dutch rules, but what should happen to the samples?

 This is an extreme case, of course; in a more usual situation there would be one or more samples and an analytic report. If the sample is destroyed, it would be impossible to re-examine the DNA for possible use in a future review of evidence. One option is to preserve the DNA and the data that links the sample to the analysis as long as the person can be presumed alive, perhaps adding a few decades as a margin. But is that long enough for scientific researchers looking at populations for genetic characteristics (see, for example, the ALS item under United States below)? Is it long enough to satisfy the interests of people tracing their heritage, both for family history and for medical information?

 If archives need to hold DNA samples for extended periods of times, along with the analysis and the metadata linking the two (for example, a table linking the number on the sample’s vial to the report and the person), are archives equipped—physically and technically—to do this?  Unlike the ostraka which, like most baked pottery, are virtually indestructible, DNA samples are susceptible to all the deterioration of a body. Any archives that is the potential recipient of DNA materials needs to think now about its decisions on retention of DNA samples and its capacities for the care of this small, powerful evidence.