PDF/A in Action: Creating and Conforming

PDF/A—PDF for Archiving—is a special “flavor” of PDF designed for the long term preservation of documents. PDF/A is an ISO standard.

For an introduction to PDF/A, please read my article PDF/A: PDF for Archiving.

Since the PDF/a format offers law firms the confidence that the file they create today can be opened many years from now, the legal community is interested.

Some regulatory bodies are pushing strongly for PDF/A submissions, too.

From a practical standpoint, there are four  areas to consider:

  1. Creating PDF/A Files
  2. Validating files for PDF/A Conformance
  3. Bringing existing PDF files into conformance with PDF/A
  4. Create conformance reports

Read on to learn more about how to accomplish these operations in Adobe Acrobat Professional.

Creating PDF/A using the AdobePDF Print Driver

Acrobat provides the capability to convert the print output of any application to a standardized PDF/A file.

To print from any application to a PDF/A file, follow these steps:

  • Go to File—>Print
    Choose the AdobePDF print driver from the pop-up list

    Print Driver picture

  • Click the Properties button
    The AdobePDF Document Properties window will open.

    PDFa Settings Screen Shot

  • Choose the PDF/A-1b:2005 (RGB) setting.
    This is my recommended setting for legal documents. All fonts are embedded and colors are managed in the RGB system.
  • Click OK to return to the Print Window
  • Click OK to start the conversion process. Acrobat will ask you for a file name and location.

Once you go through this process once, the settings are “sticky” for future sessions.

Note that use of the AdobePDF Print Driver creates a basic type of PDF devoid of several useful PDF features such as bookmarks, links, tags and so on.

Because of these limitations, using the AdobePDF Print Driver can only create files that minimally conform to the PDF/A spec—the less stringent PDF/A-1b type.

Creating PDF/A using Office Apps which Include 1-button PDF Creators

If you are using an application such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Visio, Adobe Acrobat provides direct creation of PDF using the one-button PDF Creators (PDF Makers).

The PDFMakers offer improved functionality over the Adobe PDF Printer and is the preferred method if available.

In each of these applications, a menu is provided which offers a method to configure the PDF conversion. Here, you can choose PDF/A as an option.

The PDFMakers offer a richer conversion which result in a PDF/A-1a file— a more stringent interpretation of PDF/A. These files contain tagging (accessibility and reflow) information and other elements required for this level of conformance .

The following example is from Microsoft Word, but Excel and :

  1. Choose AdobePDF—>Change Conversion Settings

  2. The Conversion Settings window appears:

  3. Check Create PDF/A-1a:2005 compliant file and click OK.

The setting will be sticky for all future sessions of Microsoft Word (or other office application).

To create a PDF/A file, choose on of the following:

  • AdobePDF—>Convert to Adobe PDF
  • Click on the PDF icon in the Acrobat toolbar installed in Microsoft Word

Checking Metadata for Indications of PDF/A Conformance

A compliant PDF/a file includes metadata indicating that it was conforming at the time it was created.

To view the metadata indicating PDF/a conformance:

  1. Choose File—>Properties
  2. Click the Additional Metadata button

In the Additional Metadata window:
- Choose Advanced from the panel on the left
- Expand the http://www.aim.org/pdfa/ns/id/  properties list

In the example above, the metadata indicates that the file is compliant with the PDF/a-1a specification.

Even if the metadata is present, it does not guarantee that the file actually is PDF/a compliant. For example, a PDF/a file may have changed since it was originally created. The document metadata does not automatically update to indicate the change.

Verifying PDF/a Compliancy

The Preflight options of Acrobat Professional allow you to check PDF/a compliancy.

To check a file for conformance, perform the following steps:

  1. Open the PDF to be checked
  2. Choose Advanced—>Preflight

  3. The lower left corner of the Preflight window displays buttons that depict the status of the file and allow you to perform operations:


Status Depicted

Click button to . . .

Not a PDF/A file

Convert to PDF/a

PDF/a, but not verified

Verify status

Verified PDF/a File

Remove PDF/a elements

To verify PDF/a compliancy, click theVerify Status Buttonbutton.

Issues to Understand: Converting existing PDFs to PDF/a

It can be challenging to convert existing, non-compliant documents to PDF/a, especially the strict PDF/a-1a standard.

If you read my first PDF/a article, you already know that in order to be PDF/a compliant . . .

  • All fonts must be embedded
  • The file must be a PDF 1.4 (Acrobat 5) level file
  • The file must not contain external links, dependencies, attachments, multimedia elements, etc.

Non-embedded fonts are the greatest obstacle to attaining PDF/a compliancy. Many—perhaps even the majority—of existing PDFs do not have all fonts embedded. For example, Acrobat’s default PDF creation setting (Standard) does not embed common Windows fonts such as Arial, Verdana and Times New Roman. The Standard creates very compact files, but assumes that standard fonts are available for viewing.

You can check to see if fonts are embedded in a PDF file by choosing File—>Properties and clicking on the Fonts tab.

Unfortunately, Acrobat does not provide a method to embed fonts in a document after it has been created.

The only workaround is to print the PDF to the AdobePDF print driver using the PDF/a-1b setting. Unfortunately, this method removes some valuable information such as bookmarks and links. Some users also think this makes the file less stable, but that has never been my experience.

If tags are added to the document (Advanced—>Accessibility—>Add Tags to Document), it may be possible to bring the file to PDF/a-1a compliancy.

Scanned files such as PDF Image-only files present no problems moving to PDF/a-1b compliancy.

Converting existing PDFs to PDF/a

To convert an existing to PDF to PDF/a:

  1. Open the PDF to be converted
  2. If PDF/a-1a compliancy is desired, add tags to the document:
    Advanced—>Accessibility—>Add Tags to Document
  3. Choose Advanced—>Preflight
  4. Click at the bottom left corner of the Preflight windowVerify Status Icon
  5. The Preflight convert window appears.
    Choose the PDF/a conformance level desired.  

    For most Office-type documents, sRGB is the appropriate choice for the output condition.

  1. Click OK.
    The Preflight operation will run.
    If the document can be brought into compliancy, the will appear in the lower left corner of the Preflight window.Verify Icon

    If the document cannot be made compliant, the Results window will display the problems:

    Items with a red X indicate problems. In the example above, fonts were not embedded and CMYK images were used when sRGB was used as the output intent.

Creating Compliancy Reports

A report may be created to accompany documents verifying compliancy.

  1. Open the PDF to be converted
  2. Choose Advanced—>Preflight
  3. Click the button at the bottom left corner of the Preflight window to verify compliance.
  4. Click the Results tab of the Preflight window:
  5. The Save window appears.
    Choose the appropriate report option:

    1. Select Overview only to create a one page report about the file
    2. Select Details to include a copy of the document highlighting problems in the file.
  6. Acrobat will automatically open the report for viewing.

A finished report for a compliant file looks like this:

Final Thoughts

While it is easy to create a PDF/a compliant file from existing word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations, it is more challenging to convert existing, non-compliant PDFs.

As a best practice, PDF/a files should be created from original, source documents.

If you anticipate that PDF/a may be needed in the future, but need to take advantage of features beyond Acrobat 5-level files, create and use a setting that embeds fonts. Remember that Acrobat’s default Standard setting does not embed fonts.

In my next PDF/a article, I will discuss ways to use Batch processing and other techniques to convert documents in batch to PDF/a.

9 Responses to PDF/A in Action: Creating and Conforming

  1. Rahul Ghotge says:

    I was trying to create a PDFA 1b compliant document using a word file. I keep getting the error as ” Syntax problem: Dictionary with more than 4095 entries”. I need to use a lot of technical/medical terms, so there will be a lot of words added to my microsoft word dictionary. How do I solve this problem and make the file PDFA 1b compliant?
    —– Rick’s Reply —-
    You didn’t say which version of Acrobat you are using or the other things you have tried. Can you create a PDF using the Word PDF Maker if PDF/a output is not turned on?

  2. Linda Clark Benedict says:

    I have been archiving our faculty emails in PDF/A for a few years. I just got upgraded to Windows 7 and Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro and suddenly it doesn’t work. When I try to print to a PDF/A is seems to crash MicroSoft Outlook on the first try, then it brings the file up in Adobe Reader when I can’t find the PreFlight to check compliance. Any suggestions? Have they just hidden preferences or menus where I can no longer find them?
    — Rick’s Reply —
    Sounds like your installation was corrupted. I would suggest reinstalling and updating by applying all fo the latest patches to Acrobat.

  3. Wouter says:

    For a student foundation I wish to archive documents intended for aircraft design certification. For this purpose reliable files need to be made by many persons, using many different software programs, and those files need to be long-term accessible and printable independant of which computer is used. Security and exact colour reproduction are not needed. For this, using PDF/A with default settings seems to be perfect.

    It is an easy specification to refer to (so people who don’t understand the many possible settings in PDF-files are able to produce them), the standard is software-independant (I am using Adobe Acrobat, but other students can make a different choice), and the resulting files can be be verified. If the settings are changed to use sRGB colour and not to downsample/compress images then I would consider that to be a bonus, but any file that complies to the PDF/A specification should be good enough for our purpose.

    However, I have found a problem which I don’t understand.

    A designer has made a flow-chart with a fancy design. The boxes have two-coloured fill-effects and shades. (I wish he didn’t use these, but that is a different problem). He then used Microsoft Word 2010 – save as pdf (with the standard PDF/A settings) to create a PDF/A file.

    When I open the file in Adobe Reader (any version) there seems to be no problem. When I open the file in Adobe Acrobat the images are not displayed correctly. The fill-effects have disappeared and part of the shading seems to be transformed to a black circle in front of the text. Personally I am using Adobe Acrobat 8.2 (I bought a student licence), I have also tested the file on a computer with Adobe Acrobat 9 with the same results.

    To me this looks like a transparancy error. (I am no specialist, but I have tried to read up on the subject). PDF/A does not support transparancy, so I first assumed the file doesn’t comply with this standard. I tested the file on both the Acrobat 8.2 and 9 computers and the file passed the verification without errors in both cases.

    This leads me to the following possibilities:

    1) I am wrong and this is not a transparancy-error. In that case I would appreciate a suggestion on how to prevent this problem, because then I would need to define a more stringent specification than just “Comply to PDF/A”. We really need reliable documents.

    2) The file does include transparancy which happens to be displayed incorrectly. (I see this as a problem in the file, not in the software or in the computers.) Then the file should not comply with the PDF/A standard.
    But then:
    2a) Microsoft Office has created a file that claims to be a PDF/A, but isn’t, and
    2b) The verification by Adobe Acrobat is fooled by the file and the errors are not detected, the file passes verification.

    I would really appreciate your view on this problem. If required, I am able to e-mail the file and screenshots.

    • Rick Borstein says:

      PDF/A-1A and 1B do not allow for transparency. Therefore, when you convert the file the transparency is flattened which changes the appearance. Instead, if you have Acrobat X, use the PDF/A-2U option which allows for transparency.

  4. Holly Puett says:

    We have been creating PDFs from our copier in order to avoid metadata. We do have the ability to do PDF/As from our copier. However, I understand from what you’ve said above that we MUST have metadata. I assume that means we can no longer use our copier to produce PDFs/PDF/As.
    —— Rick’s Reply—–
    Rescanning everything to avoid metadata works, but this is is unintelligent workflow. Why would you print out a file and rescan it to make a PDF? Seriously, how much time and consumables are you willing to waste? Use the Metadata removal tools in Acrobat is you are concerned. PDF/A-1B only requires minimal metadata. Some copiers can create a PDF/A file. As long as it is verifiable in Acrobat Pro, you should be fine.

  5. John says:

    Any reason my features would not be sticky? I changed it to PDFA-1b for printing once. When I opened up the next doc, it was back to Standard.

    • Rick Borstein says:

      It depends how you are creating the file. Use the PDF Settings options in the print driver or the Preferences in Office apps to make the settings sticky.

  6. Kay Norman says:

    Is it possible to create a pdf/a-1b compliant pdf and retain bookmarks? We are using Adobe Pro 9 and converting from WordPerfect and Word.

    • Rick Borstein says:

      Not from WordPerfect. Using Word, yes. Just choose the PDF/A-1B setting as your default in Word, then use the PDF Maker.