Electronic Documents – What Matters to the US Government

Screenshot of US Courts website.

Leading the push for development of an archival variant of PDF over the past 15 years, the many US Courts organizations have document management challenges that most of us don’t really want to think about.

Not only do they curate hundreds of millions of documents for decades, the Federal Courts receive and process millions more each week from diverse, uncontrolled sources.

What they can do, however, is require PDF/A files, the archive subset of PDF, the electronic document file-format preferred the world over.

I asked a senior Courts Archivist for a candid discussion about the Courts’ philosophy around electronic documents. These comments aren’t official, since that would have taken significant time and effort to get approved, so my interviewee cannot be named.

Duff Johnson: NARA just released new transfer guidance; the first since 2003. Will this affect the US Courts?

The Federal Courts anticipated a controlled version of PDF like PDF/A would be the transfer methodology. They will not have a problem in complying with the new transfer guidance and will not need to migrate any of our 700 million case file PDFs.

DJ: What features or qualities of electronic documents really matter to the Courts?

Authenticity and accurate rendering into the future.

DJ: What are the near-term (2014) and longer-term (through 2017) priorities for development in the Courts’ handling of electronic records?

Adoption of PDF/A for case files and a methodology to transfer permanent records to the national archives.

DJ: Do you foresee any competition to PDF in terms of final-form electronic documents?

No.

DJ: Can you elaborate?

PDF has no competition for a general purpose electronic document format that can handle any sort of content, regardless of the source.

DJ: Is PDF adequately standardized, in your view? What else should be done?

It is standardized with several vendors, but what we really need is something like the “good housekeeping seal of approval”.  That will not occur until there is a testing process and certification.

DJ: What would need to happen in order to dramatically enhance your document-handling processes?

The creation of a better way to package multiple files and file types to a subject matter organization.

DJ: How important are standardized (i.e., openly published) technologies from a records-management point of view?

ISO (or similar) standardized technologies are critical for long term authentic records. That’s why the US Courts got involved so early in the development of PDF/A.

DJ: How will the Courts encourage adoption of standards-based technologies?

They will ask the public to submit using formats based on standards.  This will be the prerogative of each individual court to implement.

DJ: How would agencies save if they adopted standards-based technologies?

If migration is ever needed, it would be a much simpler engineering problem.  We’d see fewer problematic files, and have a far easier time dealing with them. Desktop software can be standardized and purchased in bulk.  Training costs would drop. Only one rendering engine would have to be created or purchased.

DJ: What are the barriers to adoption of standards-based technologies?

It needs to be part of the law, like in Europe.

DJ: Are there any moves in that direction, here in the US?

Eleven states have had legislation proposed to standardize on a long term format.

DJ: How do you see PDF/A-2 and PDF/A-3?

A-2 is just an up-to-date PDF/A-1, although it’s critical to use PDF/A-2 for archiving of presentations and other content with complex graphics.  PDF/A-3 offers an opportunity to have machine readable and human readable content in a single format.  This will be fundamental to the workflows of the future.

DJ: Thank you for your time!


One comment

  1. March 7, 2014 at 09:47

    There is a process and discipline that aids in the creation of a better way to package multiple files and file types to a subject matter organization. It’s called creating a classification scheme and ECM practitioners can help with this step.

    We really need something like the “good housekeeping seal of approval”. That will not occur until there is a testing process, certification and proper resources and bugeting for ECM and RM practitioners.


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