Should documents live forever?

Forever is a long time. Even Connor MacLeod, the famous Highlander in the ‘80s movie thought so, after four centuries of immortality. In some cases, however, documents exist nearly forever. At least in a human lifetime perspective.

Long shelf life

In some industries, long-term document retention is a serious matter. Did you know, that in the insurance business, there are documents that must be kept for 100 years? While in manufacturing, medical records of those working with hazardous materials are stored for a minimum of 30 years?

As wild as it sounds, documents sometimes tend to outlive those who created them. And technologies, that they were created with. Think about Microsoft Works that was discontinued in 2009. Suddenly these past twelve years don't seem like a lot. But when you have to google, how to open an old Microsoft Works format, it is.

The short(er) horizon

You don’t have to think in centuries to care about the future of your documents. What happens to your scanned claims five years from now? Your financial records in three years’ time? Or an employment contract just after six months?

In today’s digitized world, document processing tools change faster than ever. That’s why, even with the best document management in place, you must consider a future-proof format. Especially, if you intend to keep your documents intact for a long time. To make sure that even after years, you and your colleagues can still open, edit, and share that one important document in a format that is supported by today’s tools.

PDF - the time capsule

To protect your documents against future technology changes, PDF or PDF/A may be your choice of format. Since the early 90’s, the Portable Document Format (PDF) has become the 'de facto' standard file format to share documents, for many good reasons.

First, because PDF is more archive minded than a Word document. It guarantees that your documents appear as they should. In their original look, including text formatting and images. Completely independent of application software, hardware, and operating systems.

Second, if you share files across multiple platforms, such as website or by email, PDF gives better preview than native Office documents. It is much easier to handle for the recipient, and a lot more secure if you want to avoid changes being made to your document.

PDF or PDF/A ?

Depending on your document retention needs, you might use PDF or PDF/A. Or alternate between the two. However, for long-term archiving, the ISO standard PDF/A is your best friend as it preserves business-critical information for years, decades, or perhaps centuries to come. To do so, PDF/A works with even greater restrictions. It prohibits embedding of audio and visual materials, encryption, or the use of external references – to name a few.

The right tool for the job

There are many good software applications out there for generating a PDF version of your documents. Both licensed and free ones. But be aware that even PDF versions differ – so a PDF document generated in one tool, may not be compatible with another PDF tool or PDF viewer application. So, to be sure, you should either use the same tools and versions as your collaborative partners, or use PDF/A.

In Nextway, we also use PDF and PDF/A extensively, when sharing documents with colleagues, customers, and partners. And suggest our customers to do so. Not only because PDFs look better and are more secure, but also because we care about tomorrow. When Office tools change. And they will, for sure.

Can there only be one?

If you ask the national archives – with a retention horizon of centuries – they don’t trust even PDF and PDF/A to prevail. In the long run nothing will. Perhaps not even the Highlander. But with documents, the trick then is to have everything under control. In a unified archive, using a single, or very few formats.

Automatic PDF version of Office™ documents

Interested to know how you can make PDF versions of any Office documents in Next® with a single click?

Take a look at the Next® PDF automation extension.

Or contact me for further info:

Steen Munksgaard 
Product Management Team Lead, SME in Insurance
+41 79 551 71 18

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