PDF/A – the ISO standard for long-term archiving

If you need to reproduce the exact appearance of the document for an unforeseeable length of time, you probably want to convert PDF to PDF/A.

Whether it is for companies, public authorities, or private users, the requirement to store digital information for a long period of time – a few years, decades, or centuries – the PDF/A standard is the preferable choice of file format to be used today.

PDF/A, an archival format based on PDF, provides a mechanism for representing electronic documents in a manner that preserves their visual appearance over time, independent of the tools and systems used for producing, storing, and reproducing the files. PDF/A was published as an ISO standard in 2005. Since then, it has been constantly evolving in order to meet business needs, new technologies, and norms.

Many institutions worldwide recommend PDF/A or specifically require the use of this standard which plays an important role in document management.

What makes a long-time archiving important?

With exponentially growing data, continuously accelerated by new information technology trends - digital archiving is becoming increasingly important. The goal of archiving and storing data for long periods of time and providing access to them when needed is considered essential.

Today, for example, we cannot open all of the documents that we created or received 20 or more years ago. The software tools available to us today cannot interpret many of the documents created back then. Due to technological changes, format compatibility no longer exists.

The solution to overcome this challenge is a set of measures that will ensure:

  • the continuity of digital archive records on new media, as well as
  • the continuity of credible presentation using appropriate digital formats (regardless of platforms and after a long period of time).

It is more effective to manipulate digital content than hard copies. The same holds for archiving as the final stage in the creation of a document. The advantage of digital archiving enables lower costs, greater reliability, security, and significantly improved searchability of information contained in the documents.

Why PDF/A and not just PDF?

PDF that we use every day can embed all elements of a document within itself – fonts and images, 3D objects, audio, and video. Active content is forbidden in PDF/A.

Document archives require considerably higher standards. The content must always appear exactly the same under all circumstances. However, because of its availability and wide acceptance, choosing a PDF to create an archiving standard for digital documents was an obvious choice.

In the simplest of terms, PDF/A is a PDF that forbids certain functions which could impede long-term archiving. The file must meet requirements that guarantee reliable reproduction. It must be – PDF/A compliant.

This would imply that in order to make PDF long-term archive ready, certain precautions need to be made:

  • all required fonts must be embedded within the PDF
  • embedded video and audio data are prohibited
  • the file does not contain references to external content
  • files must not be encrypted with a password, as all content must always be fully available
  • the software must also use the XMP format for metadata, to name a few.

In practice, several digital formats are used for archiving documents. Nonetheless, the recommended digital format for long-term document storage is PDF/A.

PDF/A format has to be device-/software-/version-independent, self-contained, self-documented, and transparent (easy to analyze and structurally understand). It standardizes viewing, printing, and exchange, which is of great importance since it guarantees technically acceptable PDFs in your archive.

Reasons to use PDF/A

Besides the possibility of long-time archiving your documents, here are a few other good reasons to consider using PDF/A standard:

  • Full-text searching: PDF/A helps you to find and access specific information within a certain data set. When it comes to scanned documents, the standard permits searchable text created through OCR - optical character recognition.
  • Re-use content: PDF/A Conformance Level A makes it easier to re-use content. Such files are very easy to convert to other formats.
  • Legally binding documents: PDF/A is an excellent option for digitally signed documents. PDF/A documents can always be digitally signed using the very latest technology.
  • PDF/A in combination with other standards: PDF/A is closely related to the ISO's other PDF standards.
  • The multi-part PDF/A standard offers great flexibility to users.
  • Platform-independent: PDF/A is platform-independent.
  • PDF/A is space-saving: PDF/A documents are usually smaller due to the use of efficient compression algorithms.
  • PDF/A being widely accepted: PDF/A is already recommended or required and legislated for long-term archiving in several governments and organizations across Europe and Asia. In North America, such recommendations exist in the areas of jurisdiction and libraries. The demand for this standard is growing continuously.

What about PDF/A validation – Is it needed?

Since it is not always easy to tell whether an existing PDF file actually meets the ISO’s PDF/A standard, it is preferable to perform a validation check which examines all relevant parts of your document.

When should you do it?

  • A PDF/A file should be validated immediately after creation, to ensure that the process was done successfully.
  • If PDF/A files are received or sent, validation is also advised.
  • Make sure to validate data before placing it in a digital archive.

How to validate PDF/A files?

PDF/A validators can be used to confirm that a file is actually a PDF/A file. These are online tools that verify if all the elements of the standards have been met.

PDF/A files created with our free online tool are ISO-compliant and they also pass Vera PDF validation. Vera PDF is an open-source, file-format validator covering all PDF/A parts and conformance levels.

Convert PDF to PDF/A online

The PDF/A conversion process can be conveniently performed using an online PDF/A converter that can convert PDF to ISO-compliant PDF/A files in a matter of seconds.

As a Premium user, you can easily convert PDF to PDF/A online by using our newly available PDF/A conversion tool!

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