How PDF/A should fit into your document archiving strategy

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Whether the drivers are to move from a paper-based document workflow to a digital one, to save costs associated with print and paper, or to simply dispose of all of those old filing cabinets, organisations of all sizes and in all industries are looking for new and better strategies to archive their important documents. Portable Document Format (PDF) software - and the PDF/A sub-format - are the perfect complement to any organisation’s data-retention policies, but unfortunately, most users don’t know much about the PDF/A format.  

While this article takes a closer look at it, and how it helps archive and retain critical information, let’s not forget that since PDF was invented, it has revolutionised the way users create, store, share and edit digital information. Because PDF software faithfully preserves the overall layout, fonts, graphics and other features of a document, it has made working with documents much more user-friendly, intuitive and productive. 

Furthermore, the days of PDF being a proprietary Adobe offering are now long gone, as the format conforms to the ongoing ISO 32000 open standard introduced in 2008, making it suitable for use in government, healthcare and business alike. But somehow the perception has remained that PDF is inextricably linked to Adobe and therefore it is not as universally ‘useable’ as other major office file formats. In fact, just a few years ago, it wasn’t at all uncommon to hear office users refer to PDFs as ‘Acrobat files’. When was the last time you heard anyone use that phrase? The PDF – this almost unimaginably portable, flexible document format, conceived before the wider world was ready to fully grasp its potential benefits, has become ever more widespread in an IT eco-system spreading onto tablets, Smartphones and other connected devices at a startling rate.    

While its benefits are widely known, what is less clear is that PDF software can help companies archive their valuable documents and data, which is critical to mitigate financial and legal risks. The PDF/A format in particular is in fact an ideal way to archive records, documents and information.   

PDF/A gives organisations a much-needed advantage in today’s digital world where mountains of information are created and must be kept for future use. Yet many users and companies don’t know about PDF/A and struggle to find the best ways to keep their files and records for extended periods of time.  

Why is this true? PDF/A is one of the best ways to protect against future technology changes that could make digital files difficult – if not impossible – to read. 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. These steps could make these documents vulnerable to future changes, and potentially unreliable as document archives. 

Industry-specific compliance challenges  

For organisations today, failure is simply not an option when it comes to archiving and preserving information. Many industry-specific regulations have created a challenging compliance environment, complete with significant risks and consequences for any organisation that fails to comply.  

By way of example, consider these industry regulations and legislative examples from across the world: 

  • In healthcare, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) requires organisations to protect patients’ health information, and ultimately, improve the way healthcare organisations keep and maintain patients’ health information. 
  • In financial services, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) mandates how companies maintain and securely keep a variety of types of information for extended periods of time.  
  • Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires organisations that serve the food and beverage industry to keep and maintain records on sources, recipients and packaging. 

While these are just a few examples, there are many more cases 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 is that PDF/A can be an extremely easy – and effective solution to these challenges.   

What is PDF/A?  

As briefly described earlier, 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 PDF/A.  

And while the idea of using a new format or unfamiliar PDF software tools may seem intimidating, it is fast and easy to create a PDF/A file. 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. 

Jeff Segarra is Senior Director, Product Marketing at  Nuance Document Imaging Division 

Image Credit: Jason Truscott / Flickr