PDF/A and Records Management in the Netherlands

As we all know, records management is “…the field of management responsible for the efficient and systematic control of the creation, receipt, maintenance, use and disposition of records, including processes for capturing and maintaining evidence of and information about business activities and transactions in the form of records.” (Source: ISO 15489).

But how do we keep these records accessible and readable for the years to come? This is a difficult question not only for records managers, but also for governments as a whole. During the past couple of years PDF/A has become a well-known digital format within the archiving world in the Netherlands, but there are still a lot of grey areas.

Records management describes several important characteristics of a record. A record should be:

  • Authentic: is the record what it is suppose to be
  • Reliable: is it an accurate representation of the transaction
  • Incorruptible: non-authorised changes aren’t possible
  • Usable: traceable, viewable and understandable within the original context
  • Performable: data carriers should contain undamaged bit streams
  • Visually reproducible: bits streams should be visualized correctly on the computer screen
  • Sustainable: digital longevity of electronic files.

The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has created a policy on how to keep digital records accessible, readable and usable for the future.

This policy includes the following requirements:

  • The digital document format should be documented
  • If possible the format should be an open standard
  • Compression is not permitted – unless there is no information loss
  • Encryption may not be used.

To raise awareness on the existence and use of open standards, an organisation was founded called NOiV (Nederland Open in Verbinding). They have published a document to assist the Dutch public body on the use of open standards and especially the use of PDF/A, PDF 1.7 and ODF (Open Document Format).

Within the Dutch government there is a “comply or explain” policy on the use of open standard software. Every public body in the Netherlands has to use open standard software when possible, but unfortunately not everyone is aware of this policy.

Two other organizations have been founded in the Netherlands for helping select the correct open standards: Forum Standardisation and Board of Standardisation. They have written articles on the use of PDF/A for example. Every standard has its own advantages and disadvantages, and a lot of users aren’t able to “see the forest for the trees” anymore because of the number of different digital formats.

What digital format should/could be used, and when

When looking at the document lifecycle you can distinguish several stages:

  • Document creation
  • Collaboration (changes can and will be made)
  • Document exchange (no changes)
  • Publication
  • Archiving

As can be seen in the diagram below, the NOiV recommends PDF/A as a digital format for archiving, but not for creation, collaboration or the exchange of documents.

Source: Handreiking open documentstandaarden voor de overheid, NOiV (www.noiv.nl )

Source: Handreiking open documentstandaarden voor de overheid, NOiV (www.noiv.nl )

Before choosing the correct preservation file format, you should first determine which records ought to be kept for a long period of time. These should be records that are important due to their continuing administrative, informational, legal and historical value as evidence of the work of the creating organisation. The discussion about digital file formats is nothing new; it’s part of an organisation’s records management policy. But because of a lack of knowledge and awareness, or due to other priorities, these discussions have often been postponed.

Several questions still have to be answered before records managers can decide on the correct digital file format, like:

  • How often are changes made to old(er) documents?
  • What kind of digital format do the users within the organisation need?
  • How often are digital documents shared with others?
  • Which (kind of) documents should be archived?

One of the recommendations the Forum and Board of Standardisation has given is when to use PDF/A-1a and PDF/A-1b. PDF/A-1a can be used best for digital-born documents. On the other hand, the -1b version of the 19005-1 standard can be used for scanned documents and digital documents which cannot be converted to PDF/A-1a correctly.

Last but not least, the release of the upcoming standard PDF/A-2 will probably require the Dutch government to review their policies and seek advice from the PDF/A experts.

About Dominique Hermans

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