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The Shelf Life of CDs

The viability of CDs, those bright shiny ubiquitous discs that have overtaken our lives, came up for discussion in my digital photography class this spring. One classmate said she had heard that the lifespan of a CD was shorter than we thought, and more importantly, what we were counting on.


Then I saw in an article published in Creating Keepsakes (January 2006),  in which the author wrote that “it’s generally assumed that CDs have a shelf life of around ten years.” If you have your work, music or photos stored on CDs, this news might be a little frightening.


I did some more research and found, as with most things, conflicting information:


According to the www.ancestry.com site, a genealogical and family history records website:


According to the technical pages of several CD manufacturers and trade associations, estimates vary widely as to the expected longevity of the media:

  • CD-ROMs are estimated to last anywhere from 30 to 200 years.
  • CD-Rs, before they are recorded, have an estimated shelf life of five to ten years.
  • CD-Rs, after recording, are estimated to last between 70 and 200 years.
  • CD-RWs are expected to last at least 30 years.

Because CD technology is only about twenty years old (and recordable technology is younger than that), these expected life spans are estimates based on accelerated aging tests. As the testers at Kodak put it, chances are that if there is a significant error, the disc won’t work. Either it works or it doesn’t.

I also read at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CD-R under the topic “Optimal Storage Conditions and Expected Lifespans” of CDs that if you treat your CDs like fine diamonds, your discs may last for a very long time. But if you are human -- and can’t or won’t take all the required steps to ensure your CDs last -- then you may want to take some additional precautions.

Prevent fingerprints and scratches on the recordable surface and don’t expose the CDs to heat or humidity. Use water-based markers to label your CDs, and don’t use stickers or labels if you can help it.


Most importantly, you should periodically copy all of your information captured on CDs to new CDs and DVDs to further protect them. That is, until the next technology emerges that will banish CDs and DVDs to the We- Don’t-Need-You-No-More Technology Wasteland to join reel-to-reels, 8-Track tapes and (soon) audio cassettes and VHS tapes.


By Teresa K. Flatley



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