Your CD Collection is Dying

If you’ve tried listening to any of your old music CDs lately—if you even own them anymore—you may have noticed they often won’t play. The same is probably true of data stored on CD-ROM disks; the older ones are deteriorating and are becoming more and more difficult to use. The data CD-ROM disks are producing more read errors than they used to.

Luckily, there are easy solutions available if you take steps NOW.

CD and CD-ROM data formats were never designed for long-term data storage. Instead, they were actually developed for the ease of mass production. A CD or CD-ROM disk is composed of several layers, such as a plastic polycarbonate layer, a metal reflective layer with all the data in it, and then the coating on top.

The problem is, different manufacturers have different formulations; so, it’s quite complex to figure out what exactly is causing the deterioration of the disks. Even worse, the various manufacturers changed the formulation along the way, and production changes are considered to be proprietary information. In other words, the manufacturers won’t tell anyone what they changed and when they changed it.

Even CDs made by the same company in the same year and wrapped in identical packaging might have totally different lifespans. It’s impossible to tell just from looking at a disc how it will age.

Another issue is that mass-produced disks created in a factory use very different methods of recording the data from the methods used in the “record your own CD disks at home” variety we all use to record data onto one disk at a time. The disk you recorded at home almost certainly has a shorter life expectancy than the commercially-produced disks created in a factory.

In fact, a CD or CD-ROM disk is not a single piece of plastic. It is really a “sandwich” consisting of several layers:

Label and lacquer layers
Upper polycarbonate layer
Foil layer
Dye layer
Lower polycarbonate layer

NOTE: Rewriteable discs like DVD-R, DVD+RW and DVD-RAM lack a dye, but instead use phase-changing crystalline structure alloys at the same layer location.

The weakest part of a DVD is in the binders (or glues) that hold the polycarbonates together, forming your DVD layer sandwich.

One of the problems with long-term storage of these disks is that the layers often start to separate over time. Separation is accelerated with variations in temperature and humidity. Eventually, many discs show signs of edge rot, which happens as oxygen seeps through a disc’s layers. Some CDs begin a deterioration process called bronzing, which is corrosion that worsens with exposure to various pollutants. The lasers in devices used to burn or even play a CD can also affect its longevity.

Then there’s the wear and tear that’s more in line with what you’d probably expect to happen over time—like scratches and exposure to extreme temperatures. One example is leaving the disks in your car over the summer.

Hint: If you like to listen to music CDs in your automobile, the suggestion is to COPY the music CDs and then place only the copies in your automobile. Leave the original disks at home where the temperature and humidity will be kinder to the disks. Once your copies die, you can make new copies from the originals.

It’s also better to not mess up the top of your CDs with gummed labels. The adhesive creates chemical reactions that quickly eat up data. Writing on a CD or CD-ROM disk with a permanent marker, such as a Sharpie, is generally safer than using any sort of gummed label.

You can also purchase permanent markers that claim to be “safe for use on a CD.” However, the added benefits of such markers has never been proven. The standard permanent marker you purchase at the drug store or office supply store should be as good as any “special markers” for writing on the top of a CD.

Media Obsolescence

Have you tried to purchase a microfilm reader recently? It is almost impossible today and probably will be completely impossible within a few more years. CD drives and CD players are disappearing from newer models of laptops, usually being replaced either with flash drives or with online storage “in the cloud.” CD players are even disappearing from automobiles, being replaced by iPods and flash drives. I suspect you won’t be able to purchase a CD drive a few years from now. Flash drives will become obsolete some day as well, to eventually be replaced with some sort of storage device that probably has not yet been invented.

Perhaps a bigger issue is file formats. For example, JPG is very popular today for saving digital images, but will that be true ten or twenty years from now? How about PDF files or music MP3 files? Will there be hardware devices twenty years from now that will read those formats?

The problem is easily solved by copying the older formats every few years to whatever format is popular at that time. For instance, if a new “XYZ format” eventually becomes more popular than PDF, software and hardware will always be available for a few years to copy from PDF to XYZ. The secret is to not miss that “window” of a few years when conversion is easily accomplished.

The more difficult problem arises when proprietary file formats are used by commercial companies in their products. If a genealogy company uses some form of proprietary format for a CD disk containing images of old handwritten records, the only practical method of converting those disks a few years later to a more modern format is to have that company make the conversion for us. However, the company may have since gone out of business (Does anyone remember Banner Blue Software?) or may have since lost interest in the project.

Ideally, we should only buy genealogy products today that use commonly-available file formats for all information storage.

Summation

If you have CDs or CD-ROMs that are sitting on the shelf, you need to copy them NOW. You can copy them to new CD disks or to flash drives or to most any other form of modern media. They still won’t last forever, but you can get quite a few more years of life from them if you take steps now to preserve the information by copying it to new storage devices. Then, a few years from now, copy them again to even more modern media that comes into common use at that time

If you (or your surviving heirs) take the time to copy CDs, CD-ROMs, DVDs, flash drives, and more digital media to modern media and file formats every few years, your valuable information can last and be useable for centuries.

11 Comments

I have noticed increasing problems with using UK family history society indexes on CD/DVD not to mention those problems caused by operating system updates. At the moment I feel like saying no more digital indexes and going back to microfiche or even better printed media. I know that online indexes have largely superceded the CD but if you live in an area with iffy or just plain slow internet they are not really a useful option.

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Somehow I think you just made the case for having paper copies (or stone tablets?) of everything. Should anything happen to our electric grid, all the various forms of electronic storage from mag tape to hard drives, dvds, and the cloud will become impossible to read.

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Steve Fleckenstein May 25, 2016 at 6:36 am

I just pulled out a few CD-R audio format disks I burned in the early 2000’s, part of a multiyear project of converting my father’s and grandfather’s 78 record collection to a “modern” format. I ran test mode on each track using the free EAC program, http://www.exactaudiocopy.de/ and no track errors were reported. In the quest to complete with tablets most laptops today no longer include an optical media drive but you can still purchase an external USB drive. Storage environment is important. My burnt disks are in a 4 drawer file cabinet in my home office, A/C and heat keep the temps between 65 to 80 degrees.

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Please discuss the M-DIsc solution to degradation of the media.

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    M-Discs (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M-DISC for details) are an example of wonderful technology that seems to have been ignored by almost everyone. While the disks should last for at least 1,000 years, few people have ever purchased these devices. I don’t know of any companies that have used M-Discs in their products.

    M-Discs also share the problem of product obsolescence. While the disks will last 1,000 years, one has to wonder if there will be any M-Disc players around 1,000 years from now. My guess is that future engineers will be able to create M-Disc players, if needed, but if there aren’t any disks around there won’t be much need to do so.

    Another, even longer term, solution is the sapphire disks that should be able to store terabytes of information for several million years. (See my earlier article at http://goo.gl/ZAA0BD for information about sapphire disks.) The advantage of the sapphire disks is that reading them is easy: all you need is a high-powered magnifying glass.

    Of course, I doubt if anyone will be able to read English 1 million years from now but that’s a different story.

    These two products seem to have been ignored by the marketplace. Despite the excellent technology, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in using either of these solutions. If no one uses them to store data, they won’t be very good solutions.

    Liked by 1 person

I want to shake the hand of the person who remembers to update the format of their data every few years. I know for sure it won’t be me. I can’t remember why I walked into a room. Paper. Even paper that only lasts 50 years is my chosen medium. I’ve lived through computer failures and other disasters. My paper always survived even when my electronic copies didn’t. A subscription to a cloud storage company does not inspire confidence in me. I don’t trust any of them to always be around. And if they raise their rent, then what? I’m existing on social security. I don’t have an extra $10 a month to spend on anything. And when I die. Then what? All my work goes……..where? At least with paper there is a chance someone will find it. A web site storage with all that information on it. Hmm. Who will look for it? And would they find it? My kids are not interested now. Maybe they never will be. But there is more of a chance they will store my paper than they will look at a cloud storage account I have and continue paying for it. There is something satisfying about holding a piece of paper or a bound book that looking at a computer screen doesn’t replace. Yes, I have everything on disks, too.

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    Honestly, I couldn’t have said it better! Our road ahead of productivity seems to be getting shorter and shorter or maybe we are just getting slower at accomplishing things. All I can do is my best and if it isn’t good enough – so be it!

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You are the only teams person to talk about CD brought. I have been buying compact discs since about 1986. My first purchase was guns n roses “use your illusion” one and two. They play perfectly to this day. All my CDs play perfectly and I have about 800 or 900 in my collection. So I don’t get people saying that their CDs and play anymore. It’s just That you are not taking care of them.

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David Paul Davenport May 25, 2016 at 1:54 pm

A related issue is the use of DVD readers in computers. Old CDs seldom operate in these.

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I not only have a collection of CDs and DVDs, but also recordings on audio tape cassettes and VHS tapes (I’m slowly, as I find time, converting them to CD/DVD). I have yet to have a problem with any of them deteriorating. It’s the equipment to play them on that I find gives up, and can be difficult to replace.

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I’ve been hearing these dire warnings for decades and yet all of my CDs—even my home-made ones— continue to work just fine and the oldest of them is 33 years old. Please stop perpetuating these myths.

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