Organizations are faced with managing an ever-increasing volume of electronic documents. With the sheer number of electronic documents being created and managed, the need to preserve this information is even greater. Therefore, enterprises should consider saving their electronic-born documents using a sustainable file format that will ensure its longevity and protection.

Indeed, file formats are important to the preservation of such electronic documents. Some formats last longer than others, largely due to the software used to read the information, and may continue to exist well into the future. As you evaluate the different file formats, such as TIFF, XML, native file formats and PDF, it is important to consider not only the popularity of the format but also if it's device-independent; self-contained, meaning that the file contains the fonts, graphics, etc. required to reproduce the document; self-documenting, or contains the metadata about the file; and without protection mechanisms, such as passwords and encryption.

PDF/Archive (or PDF/A) is the international standard, ISO 19005-1, Document management - Electronic document file format for long-term preservation - Part 1: Use of PDF 1.4 (PDF/A-1), that defines an electronic file format that preserves the static visual appearance of electronic documents over time. This standard also aims to support future access and future migration needs by providing frameworks for embedding metadata and defining the logical structure and semantic properties of electronic documents. ISO 19005-1 may be used by vendors to develop applications that read, write and process PDF/A files. It might be surprising to learn that there are over 2,000 applications that read, write and process PDF files. These applications may be used by organizations to create and process PDF/A files as part of a business process.

There are two conformance levels of PDF/A documents: full and minimal conformance. A file that is in full conformance to the standard uses PDF not only for the visual representation of the electronic document but also includes the semantic information and comprehensive metadata, as specified in the standard. Full conformance will increase the file some because it embeds the metadata, fonts and graphics to ensure the visual appearance of the document when it is rendered. Full conformance should be used for permanent retention and for documents that have high value. In comparison, a minimally conforming file ensures that the visual appearance of the document is preserved over time but does not require the metadata be included in the file. Minimal conformance is often a good choice for most all documents in an organization. However, it is important to remember that PDF/A is just a file format and does not guarantee digital preservation. Using PDF/A alone does not ensure electronic preservation of your documents. In fact, successful implementation of PDF/A depends on comprehensive records management policies and procedures being implemented and enforced.

The PDF/A standard originated in the United States as a joint effort between the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM International) and NPES, the Association for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies, which would lead one to believe that this format would be widely adopted here. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Nonetheless, we are seeing an increasing number of adoptions of PDF/A. Standards in the US are voluntary, both for participating in the development of the standard and the use of it. However, PDF/A has been widely adopted and used in Europe, where the use of standards, particularly ISO standards, is mandated.

BETSY FANNING [] is the director of standards and member services for AIIM, a leading non-profit organization focused on helping users to understand the challenges associated with managing documents, content, records and business processes.