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Why PDF/A needs to be fundamental to a document archiving strategy

Organisations of all sizes and in all industries, are looking for new and better strategies to archive their important documents, says Jeff Segarra, Senior Director of Product Marketing for the Nuance Document Imaging Division

Jeff Segarra
Jeff Segarra

For years, document management and imaging solution providers have been – rightly – encouraging the channel to focus their efforts on explaining the many benefits of using PDF software to complement data-retention policies. However, there’s a catch with PDF, and as the drive to digital documentation accelerates, the channel should take this opportunity to address it in order to ensure digital documents are accessible in 2037 and beyond.

While the benefits of PDFs are widely known – ranging from ensuring document security, to offering powerful redaction tools – what’s less well known is that it is actually the PDF/A format that is the ideal way to archive records, documents and information in a format that can be easily accessed in the future. Yet many companies don’t know about PDF/A or why it is the best way to keep their files and records for extended periods of time.

Working with PDF software developers and publishers, the channel should work with its customer base on a PDF/A education program explaining why it is one of the best ways to protect against future technology changes that could make digital files difficult – if not impossible – to read. What needs to be understood by the channel and their clients alike is how PDF/A successfully addresses and overcomes any challenges that could come up from the way the PDF file is created, or specifically the various options users select when making a PDF. The scenarios detailed below could make documents vulnerable to future changes and potentially unreliable as document archives; a situation that would question the logic of encouraging the move to electronic document storage.

Industry-specific compliance challenges

Industry-specific regulations have created a challenging compliance environment, complete with significant risks and consequences for any organisation that fails to comply.

There are many instances where regulations have created mandates for long-term record-keeping. In turn, this leads to major challenges as companies must find a way to store and maintain increasing amounts of information. The good news for all – from the channel to those organisations that are obliged to comply with industry regulations – is that PDF/A can be an extremely easy and effective solution to these challenges.

What is PDF/A?

PDF/A is a specific format within the larger PDF family that was created for the sole purpose of preserving digital documents for future use. PDF/A is intended to allow the original document to be displayed in the same way for many years, using software tools available at that time.

Yet this may lead to questions like, specifically, what makes a PDF/A file different from a traditional PDF? Here are some of the more notable aspects that make PDF/A stand out:

PDF/A files are entirely self-contained – when they are opened, they are independent of any other settings or software, and all information needed (including fonts, colours, images) to ensure the correct display is contained within the file itself;

All fonts are embedded. This is important because if they weren’t, the fonts used in the document might not be available at a time of future reading;

Encryption is not allowed;

Similarly, users can’t add links to external documents or websites, since there is a high chance that these won’t be available in the future;

Users can create a PDF/A file whenever the need arises, especially if they need to create, store or share documents that must be preserved for many years or archived as part of the organisation’s policies. For example, documents such as business contracts, agreements, terms and conditions, court documents, statements, accounting records and so much more may benefit from being saved as a PDF/A.

Standard format for electronic archiving

While the idea of using a new format or unfamiliar PDF software tools may seem intimidating – which is sometimes combined with a reluctance to change – creating a PDF/A file is fast and easy. With the backing of an international standards body, PDF/A is widely accepted as the standard format for electronic archiving. The format is well suited for long-term preservation of documents and email, as the format removes mutability risk and provides a universally accepted format with third-party vendor support. This means PDF documents created and stored now, can be opened in the future without issue. But for that to happen and with the future arriving sooner, rather than later – a concerted effort to promote the protection afforded by the PDF/A format needs to start happening now.