THE ANSWER: It depends, but definitely not forever.
Many institutions have their archives stored on CDs — but the discs aren’t as stable as once thought. There is no average life span for a CD, says preservationist Michele Youket, “because there is no average disc.”
Back in the 1990s, historical societies, museums and symphonies across the country began transferring all kinds of information onto what was thought to be a very durable medium: the compact disc.
Now, preservationists are worried that a lot of key information stored on CDs — from sound recordings to public records — is going to disappear. Some of those little silver discs are degrading, and researchers at the Library of Congress are trying to figure out why. Well-cared-for CDs can last many decades — even centuries. But storing a disc in a hot car or playing it often can eventually lead to “CD rot.” And here’s the thing about CDs: Youket says part of what makes it hard to preserve CDs is that they are not uniform. There were a lot of different standards of manufacturing, depending on the year and the factory.
“Everyone always wants to know the answer to the same question, ‘How long do CDs last? What’s the average age?’ But there is no average, because there is no average disc.”