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Will PDF prevent a digital dark age? (Up front: news, trends & analysis).

It is every archivist's worst nightmare: electronic files will survive, but the equipment required to read them will not. With more and more records and information being stored digitally, this scenario has become a reality. Institutions have been struggling with ensuring the longevity of digital art, electronic court filings, online journals, research, and more. Businesses have not been able to read electronic records needed for lawsuits. Consider these sobering examples:

* The British Broadcasting Corp. created a computer-based collection of photographs, writings, and other snapshots of life in 1986, which marked the 900th anniversary of the written English survey the Domesday Book. While scholars can still read the 1086 book, the digital tome needs customized software and hardware that are breaking down from old age, meaning records from just 17 years ago are vanishing rapidly.

* Joe Miller, a University of Southern California neurobiologist, could not read magnetic tapes from NASA's 1976 Viking landings on Mars. Current technology could not read the data, which was in an unknown format, so he was forced to track down printouts and hire students to retype everything.

* Federal law requires the Census Bureau to retain records on "permanent" storage media. Data from the 1960 Census were recorded on magnetic tape, which was thought to be permanent at the time. In 1976, when the National Archives asked the Census Bureau to provide parts of the 1960 data that had long-term historical value, the Bureau took three years to furnish the records because it no longer had machines capable of reading the data.

Currently, governments around the world are facing an enormous challenge: meeting mandates to electronically archive an overwhelming amount of documents. The volume of electronic records (e-mail, Web pages, and database records) in the U.S. government required by law to be archived by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is staggering--so much so that President Bush proposed a fiscal year 2004 budget of more than $300 million to assist NARA in addressing preservation, technology, and storage needs.

One example of the enormity of the electronic archive challenge, the Census Bureau, has accumulated 600 million pages of information from the 2000 Census that it will be transferring to NARA--more than five times the amount of data that NARA has captured and fully processed in the last 30 years. NARA estimates that 36.5 billion e-mail messages are produced by the federal government each year--each of which must be reviewed and considered for preservation. Among other candidates for archiving are military intelligence records comprising more than 1 billion electronic messages, reports, cables, and memos, as well as more than 50 million electronic court case files.

Preserving old files requires much more than just moving documents to the latest storage medium. It is also imperative that a computer understands the document's file structure. But even the newest software reads only a few versions back. As a user migrates, coloration or formatting may be lost.

A broadly recognized archiving standard would allow the preservation of electronic records in a consistent format, and Adobe's portable document format (PDF) may be the answer. Already, PDF is a broadly accepted standard for delivering final-format documents. Currently, more than 2 million external U.S. government documents are in PDF, and 1,400 agencies have adopted Adobe products. There are more than 20 million PDF documents publicly available online, and close to half a billion copies of the free Adobe Acrobat Reader have been downloaded. This format retains the content, look, and feel of the document exactly as it was created, ensuring integrity and security while also allowing documents to be searched. NARA recently announced that PDF is an acceptable file format in which to submit information and records for archiving.

Recognizing a growing reliance on the proprietary PDF, an international group is working with Adobe to develop an archival version of the standard. A public policy panel recently met in Washington, D.C., to discuss the PDF-Archive (PDF/A) initiative, an effort led by government agencies, archivists, researchers, content management associations, and private industry to create a common, non-proprietary standard that will enable preservation of electronic records over multiple technology generations.

PDF/A is being established to set guidelines for archiving and preserving digital documents in PDF. The initiative will address the growing need to archive documents electronically in a way that will ensure preservation of their contents over an extended period of time and ensure that those documents can be retrieved and rendered in the future with a consistent and predictable result. The working group will examine the business and technology needs and develop the criteria for what is expected to be approved as an international standard.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Association of Records Managers & Administrators (ARMA)
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Title Annotation:NARA says Adobe's portable document format is an acceptable file format in which to submit information and records for archiving
Author:Swartz, Nikki
Publication:Information Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2003
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