FEATURE: Moving to PDF/A

For many organisations, fear of change is the biggest hurdle in moving from their current electronic archiving format to PDF/A.


Many believe the transition to PDF/A is difficult to implement and expensive, and that their current systems are ‘good enough’. Throughout Europe and Asia, and increasingly at U.S. federal government and state government agencies, the PDF/A standard is being successfully adopted for long-term archival of scanned and electronic documents.

The standard meets government requirements and gives organisations the flexibility to manage their own document archives, offering significant cost savings for storage and bandwidth over the long term. Just why, then, are both UK and USA businesses being so slow to adopt the PDF/A? 

Although it is not law yet, in the UK there are serious fears that a change in policy on digital archiving would present a huge cost for the country’s already-stretched business community. The same applies to the USA where proposed new laws for electronic document archival are already creating a furore. If implemented, not only would these laws fundamentally change the ways that government departments and businesses approach scanning and storing documents, but some believe that they will ultimately result in an unfunded mandate that could cost organisations thousands of pounds in order to comply with the law. However, if the right strategy is employed, then the transition to PDF/A need not be costly or complicated.

A quick look at the way archiving has developed over the years will reveal why PDF/A has become the standard of choice for archiving in many countries. 

Every governmental agency around the world has its own specific requirements when it comes to archiving records, some require documents to be retained for 10, 20 or 30 years plus. Most of this archived material was initially kept in hard copy, but the introduction of computer technology has enabled departments to create digital indexes that help users easily find paper documents or media.

Continued improvements in technology have resulted in the use of imaging systems and the evolution of enterprise content management (ECM) systems for managing records and documents. This has enabled these systems to become the index of record and the electronic repository for digital records, which were primarily scanned documents saved in TIFF format. Now, though, Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF) has become the predominant, accepted digital file format. PDF files can be generated either by scanning hard copy documents to create an image-only PDF or through the use of a centralised PDF rendition server for documents that originated in digital format. 

However, despite the widespread use of PDF, not all PDFs are created equal. Depending on user-based settings, there is the potential for significant inconsistencies with the way PDF-based records are generated, which ultimately could have an impact on the way records are opened, and importantly, read in the future.

Realising that the use of PDF as a long-term archiving format had the potential to present problems, the International Standards Organization (ISO) approved a new standard – PDF/Archive in 2005. The PDF/A standard was developed with the archival requirements of companies, libraries and government departments in mind.

To achieve compliance and meet long-term archiving requirements, PDF/A output had to offer a number of key features; namely to be device independent, self-contained, self-documenting and free of encryption. Importantly, PDF/A must also maintain static visual representation of documents and provide a consistent methodology for managing metadata, as well as be capable of maintaining structure and the semantic meaning of a PDF’s content. By achieving these key features, PDF/A provides the flexibility to serve as a file format of choice for archival documents.

There are many upsides to implementing PDF/A. Current archiving systems that are based on black-and-white TIFF or basic PDF file formats are not necessarily protected from inaccessibility over the long term. In addition, these formats can result in files that are very large, making it incredibly costly to store documents, particularly those that are scanned in full-colour, and increase bandwidth costs for sharing the files. However, with tools to implement PDF/A, organisations will be able to save scanned compressed documents in full colour in files smaller than black-and-white TIFF, resulting in the need for less storage and bandwidth, while preserving the look and feel of the original document. 

Governments around the world often rely on ISO standards when defining their technology requirements, and the PDF/A standard is no exception. Founded in September 2006, the PDF/A Competence Centre is an initiative of the Association for Digital Document Standards (ADDS) and its aim is to promote the exchange of information and experience in the area of long-term archiving in accordance with ISO 19005. The association is geared towards developers of PDF solutions, companies that work with PDF/A in the area of DMS/ECM, and users who want to implement PDF/A in their organisations. 

Throughout Europe and Asia, PDF/A has been adopted as the standard for long-term government archives. In 2008, the Swiss Federal Council began requiring PDF/A format for all communications between the government and citizens. In Austria, all land register deeds must comply with PDF/A, in order to prove the authenticity of its documents through a qualified digital signature. And in Germany the use of PDF/A has been recommended for e-government applications.

Nonetheless, in the UK and USA, adoption of PDF/A has lagged behind. Although, momentum has begun to grow in the US over the last year or so due to federal government agencies and more than a dozen states requiring the use of the PDF/A format or strongly advocating for users to adhere to recommendations from leading organisations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or AIIM, the enterprise content management association.

Of course, there are always some limitations and the use of PDF/A alone does not guarantee long-term preservation or exact replication of source material. And, the creation of PDF/A does not explicitly mean that PDF is the best choice for archiving documents. However, if archives are using PDF, then PDF/A is the superior choice for ensuring long-term accessibility. The legal requirements to migrate to PDF/A for long-term archiving should not be considered an unfunded mandate.

Instead, governments and businesses should feel the fear and do it anyway and see the PDF/A standard as an opportunity to ensure the long-term accessibility of critical documents, with the bonus of being able to reduce costs associated with storage wnd bandwidth needed to support electronic archives over the long run.

Gary Hodkinson is managing director of LuraTech

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Filed under Document archiving & retrieval, Document Management, Document scanning & imaging, Features

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