The Library of Congress Wants to Destroy Your Old CD Collection

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 14 2014 3:38 PM

The Library of Congress Wants to Destroy Your Old CD Collection

cds
Donate them to science.

Photo from Shutterstock/Payless Images.

The Library of Congress, usually in the business of preserving media, is now embarking on a program to destroy optical disks. And if you donate your old CD collection, the institution will wreck all of them for you. But it's not the result of misdirected rage over how much space CDs take up at the office. It's for science!

The goal is to figure out how quickly different CDs age and why. CDs were designed to be easily mass producible and cheap. And though they can be made into beautiful art, they were never meant to last forever. But as artifacts of a historic era (ah, the 98 Degrees days) the Library of Congress is tasked with archiving them. But will they keep?

As the Atlantic reports, it turns out that though CDs look like they were standardized long ago, the exact formulations of the plastic and reflective materials changed often between manufacturers. In fact, CDs that were made around the same time by the same company may age very differently. And since all of the processes are proprietary, no one can know exactly what's in the CDs or how they were manufactured.

Instead, the Library of Congress is running tests and exposing large samples of CDs to intense conditions, like high heat or extreme humidity, to see how they react and whether or not they are still playable. The researchers even expose the CDs to the most brutal and dramatic trial they can: the test of time. Some CDs hang out in a climate controlled archival room and get checked every decade or so. Fenella France, the chief of preservation research and testing at the Library of Congress, told the Atlantic, "I wish we could definitively say, you know, 'If you have a CD that was manufactured in 1984, that's terrible.' But it's not quite that simple."

Overall, blank CDs that were meant be burned once (all those precious mixes!) and rewriteable CDs  degrade the fastest. But within the commercially produced category it's hard to tell how a CD will survive the aging process. Only one thing's for sure: "If you want to really kill your discs, just leave them in your car over the summer. That's a really great way to destroy them," France said.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Over There
Sept. 22 2014 1:29 PM “That’s Called Jim Crow” Philip Gourevitch on America’s hypocritical interventions in Africa.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 22 2014 3:33 PM Killing With Kindness My in-laws want to throw me a get-well-from-cancer bash. There’s no way I can go.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 22 2014 12:15 PM The Changing Face of Climate Change Will the leaders of the People’s Climate March now lead the movement?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.