Archiving digital documents securely and reliably is one of the challenges that has increased in prominence in recent years as companies have come to rely on advanced technology. This need applies to organizations that generate large amounts of born-digital content, as well as those that are scanning and preserving information initially printed on paper, from invoices to transcripts and more.
When archiving documents in digital form, companies must ensure those documents are still accessible through document management software, no matter how long they are stored. This means these organizations should go beyond standard file conversion and embrace formats such as PDF/A, which is intended to be a future-proof form of PDF document. This specialized approach to document storage exceeds the capabilities of both physical retention and standard digital methods to give companies archives they can count on for years to come.
Entering a New Era of Archiving
For years, microfiche and paper documents have been the standard methods of archiving information. Companies’ files take up rooms full of filing cabinets, and searching for a particular file means physically going through drawers, hoping the record has been placed in the right location. Record managers at companies of all kinds shouldn’t let inertia set in regarding their best practices. Today, embracing a digital archiving solution infuses new convenience into archival processes.
When documents are placed into an archive, it’s never clear exactly when they’ll be needed or for what purpose. Records managers should maximize their chances of finding information with a document management solution, no matter how large the archive becomes or how many other elements of the company’s processes change around them. Furthermore, digital documents can be immediately emailed anywhere in the world when requested. In an era of increasingly global organizations, easy file sharing is a high-priority feature.
Digital files that are easy to search for are especially valuable in situations when records managers leave the business. Those employees’ successors have a much better chance of finding old files if those documents have been stored in a standardized digital format then if they had been placed in a room full of inconsistently labeled filing cabinets.
As businesses increasingly embrace digital files for every area of business, archiving information digitally will become more natural. While some organizations may still be required to keep physical archives for legal archiving compliance reasons, electronic archives are staking their claim as the practical choice for everyday use.
Embracing the PDF/A Format
Archiving responsibly doesn’t just mean scanning and saving documents. Companies should ensure they are converting those files into a standardized format, one designed with archiving in mind. This means using PDF/A, which is the recommended format of both the Association of Records Management and Administrators and the National Archives and Records Administration.
As for the technical details of the PDF/A format, the PDF Association points to a lack of dynamic elements. PDF/A files don’t look outside of themselves to gather information about fonts, colors or images. Instead, they are preserved as-is at the time of their creation and look exactly the same to every user that accesses them, for however long they exist. This helps employees in different locations verify information, as well as makes certain future readers will see identical content to present-day viewers.
PDF/A also differs from the basic PDF in that it is guaranteed to work with all relevant software: The PDF/A standard is designed to make files accessible by any future PDF readers, which means people will always have a simple way to read the data, with no compatibility problems based on different encoding and reading software. The PDF Association pointed out that the ISO standard calls for all PDF viewers to be compatible with all versions of PDF/A, meaning that even if new revisions are made, files created with PDF/A in the past will always be accessible through standard PDF software.
PDF/A files are text-searchable, provided companies have taken the proper steps at the time the documents are created. The PDF Association noted that when converting born-digital documents such as standard PDFs to PDF/A, there is generally no extra action needed to make the text searchable. When scanning physical documents to PDF, records managers should use optical character recognition (OCR) to ensure the text is preserved in a searchable digital format.
Learning the Specifics: Types of Archival PDFs
There are several types of PDF/A, each optimal for a specific kind of content. The levels of PDF/A are designated a, b and u. The following are the key differences between these subtypes.
PDF/A Level b
This is the basic type of PDF/A, and has been the default since the early days of the standard. Level b doesn’t have some of the accessibility features encoded in other types of PDF/A. Files preserved this way will display exactly the same, no matter where and when they are accessed. However, the digital text within these documents may not be saved with its initial reading order and logical structure intact.
PDF/A Level u
The PDF/A Level u format was introduced in 2011 as part of the PDF/A-2 standard, and files saved this way area easier to index. All the text within these files must be preset in the Unicode library, meaning every piece of text will be searchable and indexable. When files are converted from physical scanned documents and made text-searchable via OCR, it can pay to save them as PDF/A Level u, ensuring the newly converted text is searchable in the future.
PDF/A level a
Level a is predicated on greater accessibility than other types of archival PDF. These documents have specified language information and are saved in hierarchical structures. Text spans are tagged, and all images and symbols within have descriptive text. As with Level u, text is matched with Unicode characters. These added layers of detail are especially useful if users with visual disabilities are searching through or reading the documents, as all their visual elements are preserved in formats that can be converted into spoken text with text-to-speech software.
Committing to Digital Archives
There’s no telling how far in the future, or where in the world, a company will need to access its archived documents. Archives should be functional parts of an organization, ready to provide data at a moment’s notice, no matter how much time has passed. Using the PDF/A format allows companies to directly address future-proofing and searchability. Whether the documents were born digital or come from paper files, they’ll thrive in a specifically designed digital archive.