April 18, 2023

PDF/A - Best option for long-term archival

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PDF/A - Best Option For Long-Term Archival

Using the right archival format is critical for any organization that wants to preserve their digital documents for the long term. By using PDF/A as your archival format, you can future-proof your document management strategy and ensure the long-term preservation of your digital documents.

Effective document management is a fundamental block for any organization to operate efficiently, comply with regulations, and maintain a competitive edge. However, with the rapid pace of tech innovation, organizations need to ensure that their document management strategy is future-proofed to adapt to changing technology and business requirements.

Understanding the Challenges of Document Management in the Digital Age

The digital age has transformed the way we create, store, and manage documents. While digital documents offer convenience and accessibility, they also present unique challenges that can make managing them difficult. Here are some of the challenges that organizations face when managing digital documents:

  • Format Obsolescence: Digital formats change rapidly and can quickly become obsolete, making it difficult to access documents in the future.
  • Security Concerns: Digital documents can be easily hacked, leaked, or stolen, compromising sensitive information.
  • Data Overload: With the increase in digital documents, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data.
  • Searchability: It can be challenging to find specific information within a digital document without an effective search function.
  • Collaboration: With multiple people contributing to a document, it can be challenging to maintain version control and ensure all parties have the latest version.
Refer to our previous blog for Best Practices For Managing Your Digital Archive.

As more and more organizations go paperless, it becomes increasingly more important to standardize your archival format. Selecting the right archival format can mean the difference between preserving your documents for future generations or losing them to technological obsolescence.


Understanding Archival Formats

An archival format is a file format that is specifically designed for long-term storage and preservation of digital information. There are several archival formats available, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

The most common archival formats include PDF/A, TIFF, and XML. PDF/A is a variant of the PDF format that is designed specifically for long-term archiving of electronic documents. TIFF is a raster-based image format that is widely used for archiving scanned documents, particularly in the legal and medical industries. XML is a markup language that is designed for data exchange and archiving of structured documents.

When selecting an archival format, it is important to consider factors such as the type of document, the size of the document, and the expected lifespan of the document. It is also important to consider the compatibility of the format with different operating systems and software applications.


PDF/A: The Archival Format of Choice

PDF/A (Portable Document Format/Archival) is a standard format for archiving digital documents. It was first introduced in 2005 by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and has since become the most widely used archival format.

PDF/A was specifically designed for long-term archiving, ensuring that the documents will remain readable and usable for years to come. Here are some of the key features and benefits of using PDF/A as your archival format:

  1. Preserves document content and structure: PDF/A preserves the content and structure of the original document, ensuring that it looks the same even if it's viewed many years after it was created. This makes it ideal for archiving documents that need to be retained for legal, regulatory, or historical reasons.
  2. Ensures document integrity: PDF/A includes mechanisms for verifying document integrity, which means that you can be sure that the document has not been altered or tampered with in any way.
  3. Supports metadata and indexing: PDF/A supports the inclusion of metadata, such as document title, author, and date, which makes it easier to index and search for documents in the future.
  4. Cross-platform compatibility: PDF/A documents can be viewed on any device or platform that has a PDF viewer, which makes them highly accessible and usable.

PDF/A has gone through several iterations since its initial release, with each new version addressing different issues and challenges. The most widely used versions of PDF/A are PDF/A-1, PDF/A-2, and PDF/A-3, each of which has its own specific features and benefits.

Compared to other archival formats, such as TIFF or JPEG 2000, PDF/A is a more versatile and reliable format for archiving digital documents. It offers a wide range of features that make it ideal for long-term archiving, including the features outline above.


Choosing the Right PDF/A Version

Choosing the right PDF/A version is an important decision in ensuring the long-term preservation of your digital documents. Here are some factors to consider when making this decision:

  1. Required features: Different versions of PDF/A have different features and capabilities. PDF/A-1, for example, is limited to supporting only a subset of PDF features, while PDF/A-3 allows for embedding of non-PDF file formats. Consider the required features of your documents when choosing the appropriate PDF/A version.
  2. Compliance requirements: Depending on your industry or location, you may have specific compliance requirements for your digital documents. Make sure to choose a PDF/A version that is compliant with these requirements.
  3. Migration path: Consider the potential need to migrate your documents to a newer version of PDF/A in the future. Choosing a version that is closer to the latest standard can help ensure a smoother migration process.

Now, let's take a closer look at the different versions of PDF/A:

  • PDF/A-1: This version is based on PDF 1.4 and is the oldest PDF/A standard. It is limited to supporting only a subset of PDF features, such as JPEG2000 and LZW compression, and does not allow for transparency or encryption. However, it is a good choice for basic text-based documents with simple layouts.
  • PDF/A-2: This version is based on PDF 1.7 and includes support for advanced features such as transparency and encryption. It also allows for embedding of OpenType fonts and digital signatures. PDF/A-2 is a good choice for more complex documents such as those with images or multimedia.
  • PDF/A-3: This version includes all the features of PDF/A-2 and allows for the embedding of non-PDF file formats, such as XML or CSV files. This can be useful for preserving related data or metadata alongside the PDF document. PDF/A-3 is a good choice for documents that require additional data or metadata to be preserved along with the document.


Converting Documents to PDF/A

To convert documents to PDF/A, you will need a PDF/A conversion software or tool. Check out our experts guide on the Key Capabilities an Enterprise-Grade PDF Converter Should Have.

To ensure successful conversion to PDF/A, there are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Choose the right PDF/A version for your needs: As discussed earlier, different PDF/A versions have different features and limitations. Choose the right version that meets your needs.
  • Ensure that your documents are clean and free from errors: PDF/A is a strict format that requires documents to be error-free. Make sure that your documents are clean and free from any errors before converting them to PDF/A.
  • Choose the right conversion software: Choose a reliable PDF editor or conversion software that supports PDF/A conversion.
  • Test your PDF/A documents: After converting your documents to PDF/A, test them to ensure that they meet the required standards and are accessible and searchable.


Best Practices for Using PDF/A as Your Archival Format

PDF/A has become the archival format of choice for many organizations due to its many benefits. However, using PDF/A effectively requires adhering to best practices. Here are some best practices for using PDF/A as your archival format:

  1. Organizing and naming PDF/A files: It's important to establish a consistent naming and organizing convention to make it easy to locate and access files when needed. Create a naming convention that is easy to understand and includes relevant information such as the document type, date, and author. Organize your PDF/A files into folders based on the type of document or function they serve.
  2. Backing up and storing PDF/A files: To ensure that your PDF/A files are protected against data loss, it's important to have a backup system in place. Consider backing up your files to a remote server or cloud storage. It's also important to use a reliable storage medium that can withstand changes in temperature and humidity.
  3. Managing access to PDF/A files: It's important to control who has access to your PDF/A files to prevent unauthorized changes or deletion. Establish an access control policy that specifies who can access files and what level of access they have. Use strong passwords and encryption to protect files from being accessed by unauthorized personnel.



Using the right archival format is crucial for any organization that wants to preserve their digital documents for the long term. By using PDF/A as your archival format, you can future-proof your document management strategy and ensure the long-term preservation of your digital documents.

Download our Best Practices Guide For Effective Document Archival to learn more.


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Check out Best Practices Guide For Effective Document Archival to learn more.