End-of-Life Care for Aging, Fragile CDs and Their Data Content

CDMany institutions and individuals that use CDs as a storage medium are now concerned because information technologists have deemed the medium to be unsuitable for long-term use. As a result, institutions are racing to get the data off the discs as quickly and safely as possible and into a more reliable digital storage environment.

Two years ago, Butch Lazorchak wrote about the Library of Congress’s Tangible Media Project and its efforts to transfer data off CDs for just that reason. And last month The Atlantic profiled Fanella France, chief of preservation research and testing at the Library of Congress, about the Library’s research into the physical and chemical properties of CDs and how CDs age.

At the upcoming Digital Preservation 2014, John Passmore, archives manager at New York Public Radio, will give a presentation about NYPR’s experiences in transferring the contents of their archive of over 30,000 CD-Rs. Passmore said that some of the older discs exhibit “end-of-life symptoms,” which creates an urgency at NYPR to move the content off the CD-Rs and into the organization’s asset management system. [Trevor Owens interviewed Passmore earlier this year on the subject.]

John Passmore

John Passmore, NYPR.

NYPR is gathering statistical material in the course of their data transfers and they are running forensics tools to generate data so that researchers can look for possible correlations between disc failures and specific errors. The archives uses commercial tools and custom software to automate the process.

Passmore said that there is lot to be learned regarding the chemical composition and materials of the discs, the brands, the batches and the number and severity of errors encountered during the process.

As we learn more about the physical and digital properties of CDs, it may be possible to perform triage on an at-risk collection. An archive with a dauntingly large collection may be able to evaluate a batch of discs and sort them by their relative degradation and stability, essentially creating piles, for example, of discs that are “stable for now” and “high risk of inaccessibility.”

Passmore said, “Our hope is that our data will be shared at this presentation so other organizations can learn how to better assess the long-term storage of their CD-Rs.”

6 Comments

  1. Meg
    July 2, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    It is great to know someone is working on “triage” strategies like this. Thanks!

  2. Wade
    July 3, 2014 at 9:10 am

    I agree with you Meg. Facing a large collection of CDs and trying to figure out what to do first is daunting I. Having an idea of what needs immediate attention would help a lot of people I’m sure. To think, roughly a decade ago CD manufacturers were touting the long-term stability of their product as a storage media.

  3. Jon Holmes
    July 3, 2014 at 10:48 am

    Everyone warned, as far back as “The New Papyrus” in 1986, that the CD was an ephemeral medium. What possessed professional archivists to adopt it as a storage strategy? Is this a failure of due diligence, hope triumphing over reason? Or is it a question of product liability, where false promises were made by manufacturers about a “new gold standard”. Someone is certainly to blame for this loss of time, money and, potentially, cultural heritage.

  4. Paul Turney
    July 6, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    This is not news. We knew about this 10 years ago when we stopped using CD-R as a storage medium. I simply thought all institutions having anything stored on CD-R were migrating them onto hard disc RAID Arrays, with a lot less loss than other mediums from the past.

  5. Angela Dappert
    August 12, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    We also gathered some experience with this and described it in our paper “Developing a Robust Migration Workflow for Preserving and Curating Hand-held Media”, Angela Dappert, Andrew N. Jackson, Akiko Kimura, http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.4932 http://arxiv.org/pdf/1309.4932v1
    I hope someone might find this helpful.

  6. Mike Ashenfelder
    August 12, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Thanks for writing and for the pointer to your paper. We appreciate and value different perspectives from our colleagues.

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