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Queen's University

Web Standards and Accessibility Guide

PDF File Format

Standard: PDF files should not be the primary method of web delivery.

Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) allows content creators, using disparate software applications, the ability to publish printed media to an electronic format that can then be easily stored, transferred, and read by end users using the freely available Acrobat Reader ( . The PDF's ability to reduce file sizes (and thus download times) as well as its ability to lockdown display rendering and ensure uniform printing ability has always been one of its strong features. The usefulness and goal of the software application is predicated upon a print model. With its ability to open the file format across multiple operating systems (Windows, Macintosh, and others), and its ability to support large numbers of users, Adobe made the PDF file format a valuable tool within large organizations spread over geographic distances. By rendering all information to what was essentially a graphical representation of the data, and then providing free viewing software to the end users, the PDF File format quickly became entrenched in large businesses and other institutions.

With the emergence of the Internet however, the concept of knowledge sharing has undergone a fundamental shift. While the need for uniform printing ability still exists in some areas, today the interoperability between various user-configured operating system relies on conceptual rather than visual presentation of data, using a standard mark-up language - HTML . With its enhanced ability to convey information using "structural logic" and "semantic ordering," HTML documents transcend simply a visual representation, thus making the information being conveyed more accessible to the end user/user configuration.

The latest version of the Acrobat Writer has enhancements that, when used properly, increase the accessibility of PDF files. They rely, however, on the content creator first ensuring that the semantic structures afforded by modern word processor styles be incorporated into the initial document. If a document author simply highlights text and enlarges it or gives it a different colour, the structural logic of that visual representation is lost to the tool and, subsequently, any non-visual user. However, if the document is authored using these styles, the latest Acrobat Writer preserves the structure and the final outcome is relatively accessible to most users (yet, regrettably, still not all). The irony however is that once the content author has taken the necessary steps to ensure that the content is properly rendered in the word processor prior to conversion into PDF, today's word processors can usually export the file directly as a more accessible HTML document, negating the need to publish it in PDF for cross-platform exchange.

Any material that is important enough to be publicly available should be available as HTML.

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