Those who first needed to store documents in a future-proof digital format used the popular image format TIFF (Tagged Image File Format). This format was used for a long time, particularly for scanned documents, but it has a number of drawbacks.
For example, the TIFF raster format contains no text-based information, meaning files cannot be searched by their text content. And if the TIFF file contains colour images or pages, it will become significantly larger; effective compression is all but impossible. Only black-and-white line images (which is sometimes enough for scanned text pages) can save much space in TIFF format.
Contrary to popular belief, TIFF is not an ISO standard. The resolution, colour and metadata settings for TIFF files are mostly left to the individual user’s discretion.
Becoming an ISO standard
As Adobe Systems’ 1993-published Portable Document Format (PDF) grew in popularity, users and developers began to recognise its potential for long-term archiving.
In 2002, specialists from libraries and archives, from administrative bodies, from industry and from the judicial system assembled in order to develop a purpose-built file format for standardised archiving. A working group within the ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) took up the task: representatives from a wide range of US-based associations and federal authorities including AIIM (Association for Information and Image Management), NPES (Association for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies) and NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) met with experts from the library sector (Harvard University Libraries, Library of Congress), the judicial system (Administrative Office of the United States Courts) and industry developers (including Adobe Systems and Kodak). After a number of meetings and a comprehensive testing and approval phase, the ISO published PDF/A on the 1st of October 2005 under the designation “ISO 19005-1:2005”. It was the world’s first standard file format for digital long-term archiving.
PDF/A catches on
In 2006, to promote recognition of PDF/A, a group of software developers founded the PDF/A Competence Centre (today a part of the PDF Association) as an industry association for digital document standards. Through seminars, conferences, publications and not least through its website www.pdfa.org, the association has helped spread practical information about the ISO standard.
Initially active in Germany and Switzerland in particular, within a few years the PDF Association was able to expand its area of operations across Europe, America, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. By the end of 2012, the Association had 143 members across 25 countries.
Today, PDF/A has found broad acceptance in all sectors where documents are stored long-term. Numerous document management solutions provide direct support for archiving with PDF/A. More and more countries are recommending the standard in public administration, or even specifically requiring it. Meanwhile, a correspondingly broad selection of PDF/A creation and validation software is now available, from single-workstation solutions to automated server-based systems.
PDF/A’s wide-ranging everyday use is also seen in the number of common programs which support it. Free word processing software such as OpenOffice and LibreOffice can create PDF/A files at the click of a button, and Adobe Reader faithfully displays PDF/A documents as they were intended to be seen. Microsoft Office has also supported directly saving as PDF/A since 2007.