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How PDF/A Should Fit into Your Document Archiving Strategy



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Organizations of all sizes and in all industries are looking for new and better strategies to archive their important documents. PDF software and the PDF/A sub-format are the perfect complement to any organization’s data-retention policies, but unfortunately, most users don’t know much about this format. This article takes a closer look at the PDF/A format, and how it helps archive and retain critical information.

Ever since the Portable Document Format (PDF) was invented, it has revolutionized 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.

While these benefits are widely known, what is less clear is how PDF converter software can help companies archive their valuable documents and data, which is critical to mitigate financial and legal risks. The PDF/A format, itself a subset of PDF, is an ideal way to archive records, documents and information.

PDF/A gives organizations 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 organizations 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 organization that fails to comply.

For example, consider these industry regulations and legislative examples:

  • In healthcare, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) requires organizations to protect patients’ health information, and ultimately, improve the way healthcare organizations 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 organizations 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, specifically, what makes a PDF/A file different from a traditional PDF?

Here are some of the “biggest” reasons:

  • 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, colors, 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 organization’s policies. For example, documents such as business contracts, agreements, terms and conditions, SOWs, 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.