Report backs PDF variant for long-term archiving

The UK's National Archives welcomes the backing of PDF/A as a core standard for archiving documents, but warns it is only 'a tool in the armoury of a well-thought-out records-management policy'

The UK's National Archives has welcomed a report that backs a variant of Adobe's portable document format standard as a reliable way of preserving documents for future use.

However, the organisation has warned that other file formats will need to still be monitored and considered, as the PDF/Archive (PDF/A) standard can only be one part of a long-term archiving policy.

On Thursday the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC), a UK-based not-for-profit organisation with the National Archives and the British Library among the membership, issued a report in which it called for PDF/A to be employed by organisations wanting to "be sure that their documents will be preserved for the long term".

Although PDF is a de facto standard, it is not a recognised ISO standard. PDF/A was therefore created and standardised in 2005 as ISO 19005-1 — it is effectively a stripped-down version of PDF in which fonts have to be embedded and audio, video and JavaScript are not allowed.

In the DPC's Preserving the Data Explosion: Using PDF report, author Betsy Fanning wrote that "the development of PDF/A for long-term preservation of electronic documents is a logical use of the file format". "When PDF/A is combined with a comprehensive records management program and formally established records policies and procedures, an organisation can be sure that their electronic documents will be preserved," she added.

"We are only at the beginning of the implementation and adoption of PDF/A as an electronic preservation file format, however, it is hoped that PDF/A will be widely adopted as the long-term preservation file format for the future," Fanning wrote.

However, Fanning warned: "While PDF/A may be a suitable file format today for long-term preservation of electronic documents, it should be noted that there may be other file formats introduced in the future that may better serve the needs of an organisation. Therefore, organisations should be continually reviewing the available file formats to ensure they have selected the best format for their purposes."

"This report highlights the challenges we all face in a digital age," said Adrian Brown, head of digital preservation at the National Archives. "Using PDF/A as a standard will help information officers ensure that key business data survives. But it should never be viewed as the Holy Grail. It is merely a tool in the armoury of a well-thought-out records-management policy."

Although the report addresses many rival document formats, including the OpenDocument Format (ODF), it highlights two Microsoft formats in its conclusion as being worth monitoring in the future: the XML Paper Specification (XPS) and Office Open XML (OOXML). The National Archives has been working with Microsoft since mid-2007 to tackle its many legacy Microsoft-formated documents that can no longer be read by current Microsoft software.