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.