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Nov 5, 2021

Does It Still Make Sense to Buy CDs?

Several articles have appeared online in the past few years describing the slowly dying music CD business. In short, sales of music CD disks are being replaced by directly downloading music online to iPods, computers, and other music playback devices. Remember the record and CD stores that used to be available at your local mall? Where have they all gone?

You can find dozens of articles about the declining sales of music CDs. I certainly can recommend the one at New RIAA Numbers Show That CDs Are All But Dead And Downloads Are On Life Support at https://www.forbes.com/sites/billrosenblatt/2020/09/14/new-riaa-numbers-show-that-cds-are-all-but-dead-and-downloads-are-on-life-support/.

Those articles got me thinking: if sales of music CDs are plummeting, can data CDs be far behind?

For about two decades, genealogists have been enthusiastic buyers of genealogy data CDs. At least, looking in my storage area in the basement confirms that I have been an enthusiastic buyer! I have several hundred genealogy data CDs stored in a large box, most of which haven’t been touched in years.

I assume that most other genealogists have also been purchasing CDs. I know the CD-ROM disks from Ancestry.com, (formerly Broderbund, with CDs designed to be read by earlier versions of Family Tree Maker), FamilySearch, HeritageQuest, Genealogical Publishing Company, Heritage Books, Family Chronicle, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Progeny Software, S&N Genealogy Supplies in England, Archive CD Books (from several countries), and dozens of other companies and societies have sold thousands of copies. In addition, I see dozens of independent genealogy CD-ROM disks offered for sale on eBay; most are apparently produced by one-person businesses. Prices vary widely, but $10 to $50 US seems to be the price range for most genealogy CDs with a few others at higher or lower prices.

Shouldn’t we be accessing genealogy information online instead of on CD-ROM disks?

Why would we ever want to change to online distribution? I see several reasons, some of which are already major factors:

1. Purchasing a CD with the hope that it might have desired information has always been expensive. In fact, CDs share this problem with books. The difference is that you often can preview a book at a store or at a genealogy convention to see if the information you seek is in the book before you make the purchase. Doing the same with a CD-ROM disk is considerably more difficult. More than once, I have paid significant money for a CD-ROM disk, brought it home, inserted it into my computer, and then been disappointed that there was no information on the disk of interest to me. I have had somewhat similar experiences with printed books as well.

2. CD-ROM pricing at $10 to $50 per disk probably made sense back in the days when we all used 2,400-baud dial-up modems. In 2010 the FCC reported that approximately 65 percent of Americans subscribed to broadband connections (source: “The Whole Picture: Where America’s Broadband Networks Really Stand” page 26, published by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, available at http://www2.itif.org/2013-whole-picture-america-broadband-networks.pdf). In a later report at https://www.fcc.gov/reports/eighth-broadband-progress-report, the FCC now reports that 94 percent of the American population ha access to broadband, either at work, at school, or at home. We now have faster, more efficient means of delivering large amounts of information than ever before. “Burning” a disk, packaging it, storing it, shipping it, paying for the postage and labor involved, and so on is very expensive when compared to delivering information online. Of course, the consumer ends up paying for those higher expenses.

3. In most cases, genealogists don’t want an entire disk of information. We typically seek information about one person or one family, not an entire community or even a state. Performing an online query for a few dollars and receiving a few hundred bytes of data in return is often much more cost-effective than purchasing an entire disk for $10 to $50, then searching it for those few hundred bytes.

4. CD-ROM disks are tough to update to correct errors or to add new information. Doing the same online is trivial.

5. CD-ROM disks easily become obsolete, due to software or even hardware upgrades. Do you own any of the early CD-ROM disks designed to be used with Family Tree Maker? If you are now using a current version of Family Tree Maker, it is no longer easy for you to read the CD-ROM disks you purchased years ago. If you have switched to a different genealogy program, reading those old CD-ROM disks is now impossible.

6. CD-ROM disks are rugged, but not indestructible. Heat, sunlight, or a playful puppy can destroy a CD-ROM disk quickly. In contrast, data stored in modern data centers with proper on-site and off-site backups is almost indestructible. Fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other major disasters are already handled every year by thousands of data centers that have made proper off-site backups. That’s not to trivialize the task; recovering from any major disaster is always difficult, but it has already been done hundreds of times by commercial, non-profit, military, and government data centers alike.

For reference, look at Amazon’s experience with the earthquake a few years ago in Japan. Amazon’s S3 customers were back online within hours following the earthquake although most of those customers never realized their data was now being hosted on servers in other parts of the world. While the Tokyo data center was seriously damaged and power at the data center was unavailable for weeks, Amazon’s off-site backups were restored to servers in other continents, and the customers were back in business following a short interruption of a few hours.

Will your CD-ROM disks be operational after a major disaster?

7. For a long time, CD-ROM databases offered certain advantages that online solutions couldn’t match. They were relatively fast, and a lot of data was conveniently stored in one place. That made sense in the days of 2,400 baud modems or even 56K baud modems. Retrieving data from a CD is faster than doing the same online at those speeds. Does it still make sense today when most of us are using multi-megabit-per-second broadband connections?

8. Some of today’s computers don’t even have CD-ROM drives, and that trend is growing. I own three laptops: an Apple MacBook running Mac OS X, an Acer laptop with an i5 processor running Windows 8, and a Chromebook running the Chrome operating system. Each of these laptop computers weighs about three pounds, and none of them contain a CD-ROM drive. Apple no longer includes CD-ROM drives in the Mac desktop computers. Other manufacturers are likewise beginning to omit CD-ROM drives.

The last time I looked, iPhones, iPads, Android tablets, and other handheld computing devices also are not equipped with CD-ROM drives although most all of them easily retrieve genealogy information online via high-speed wireless connections.

All this makes sense in this age of inexpensive, multi-terabyte hard drives, multi-gigabyte flash drives, and high-speed, always-on Internet connectivity, both wired and wireless. We now have faster and cheaper ways of obtaining information than through the use of CD-ROM disks.

I recently purchased an inexpensive electronic reprint of an old, out-of-copyright book from someone on eBay: “History of Penobscot County, Maine.” It was shipped to me on a CD-ROM disk. Since the computers I use regularly don’t have CD-ROM drives, and because I want the information to be available any time I am using a computer, I used an older computer to copy the entire CD-ROM disk to the ebooks folder I have in Dropbox. I then tossed the CD disk into that same box in the basement that I mentioned earlier. I haven’t touched many of those disks in years. The few disks in the box that are still readable by today’s software, such as PDF files, were copied to the Dropbox ebooks folder a long time ago. The others are useless except perhaps for use as coffee cup coasters.

Comment: Stupid me! I later found the same book was available as a free download from Google Books. (sigh) I could have downloaded it within a minute or two at no charge instead of spending money and then waiting several days for a disk to arrive in the mail. Even better, I also could search the entire online book within seconds, looking for any names, locations, or other text that I seek. I couldn’t do that with the CD-ROM disk prior to purchasing it.

Having the reprinted book on the hard drives of my computers is much more convenient and faster than using the CD. In fact, I can even open the book on a tablet computer or smartphone when traveling. I find electronic storage to be far more useful than storing on plastic disks.

Fortunately, tens of thousands of old genealogy books are available free of charge as electronic downloads from Google Books, Archive.org, Allen County Public Library, Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University Hawaii’s Joseph F. Smith Library, LDS Church History Library, Family History Library, Houston Public Library – Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research, Mid-Continent Public Library – Midwest Genealogy Center, and elsewhere.

The computer landscape is very different now than it was ten years ago. “Online, everywhere, all the time” seems to be the current mantra. Wireless access is almost universal. Online access is cheaper for the consumer, cheaper for the producer, easier to use, faster in most cases, and requires less storage space than does publishing the same information on CD-ROM disks.

Will CD-ROM disks go the route of buggy whips? Probably not overnight, but I do believe the change is inevitable.