PDF/A – background

Next week I’ll be in Washington for a meeting to start work on the second version of PDF/A. So I will be devoting most of my next few blog entries to PDF/A. Today, some background and history.

When PDF was first introduced, it was designed to a large extent as a replacement for paper documents. Many of the first big adopters of PDF were organizations that deal with huge quantities of paper documents, such as the IRS. One that got started a little later was the U.S. Courts. The courts used to accumulate astonishing amounts of paper documents for every case – sometimes literally truckloads. Managing all that paper was a logistical nightmare, and PDF looked like just the ticket to solve that problem.

There are a couple of catches, though. One is that over the years PDF has grown far beyond its “replacement for paper” roots and now includes lots of interactive and dynamic features that aren’t appropriate for the type of documents kept by courts. Another is that most government agencies have legal requirements to preserve many of their documents for very long periods of time – sometimes decades or even “until the end of the Republic”. To preserve paper documents governments have had to develop strict standards about paper and ink quality, storage conditions and so forth, all to be sure that a paper document will still be legible decades or centuries from now.

The question was coming up more and more: how can we be confident that an electronic document such as a PDF will still be readable in, say, a hundred years? Consider how much computing technolgy, operating systems, displays, application software and file formats have changed just over the last ten years, and then try projecting that out to a hundred!

To address these questions, a committee was formed in 2002 under the auspices of two standards-development organizations, AIIM and NPES. Three years later, an ISO standard was ratified.

Tomorrow: the technical content of the standard.