For years the genealogy community has posted transcribed records online as text files. There were two big reasons for this – limited disk space and software compatibility. Disk storage was a premium for both the big sites like Rootsweb and our personal sites. Graphic files are much larger than text files and would suck up all the available storage space. Then there’s software. We all have our software preferences in operating systems (Windows, Mac or Linux) and office systems (Microsoft, WordPerfect or OpenOffice.org). If you transcribed an obituary in Microsoft Word on a Windows computer, chances were good I couldn’t open it on my Mac computer using the Pages word processor. What did all of us have in common? The ability to open and edit text files.
Times have changed and we have a lot more options now. Although some of the big repositories still require text files, the public prefers original records to transcriptions and formatted text to plain. Disk space is cheaper and Web hosting packages are offering more for less. And, thanks to the Portable Document Format (PDF) developed by Adobe, it doesn’t matter what software was used to create the document (or scanned original).
Consider the basic cemetery inventory – four or five columns of information on each plot within a cemetery. Sure, people are thrilled to get their hands on that information. But, what if you included a map, photos from the cemetery and hyperlinked names within the inventory to other available content for that individual? How much value have you added to that simple inventory document? PDF documents let you do that.
First you create your document – our cemetery inventory for example – in your favorite software. Add the formatting, colors, images, maps and hyperlinks you want to include. Then, using a PDF creation application, you convert your original to a PDF file. It will look just like your original – same fonts, same layout, same colors – but it requires a PDF reader application to view it. Reader applications are free and available for all operating systems. Both Mac and Linux come with PDF readers pre-installed and if your Windows computer doesn’t have Adobe Reader pre-installed, you can download it for free.
While we can all read a PDF document and follow any hyperlinks included within the document, we generally cannot edit the contents. Some documents can even be searched for specific text. What a reader can do with a PDF document depends on how the original was created. For example, a PDF document created from a word processing document like Microsoft Word will have functional hyperlinks and can be searched, while a typewritten original that has been scanned and converted to PDF will not. A scanned document is a graphic snapshot of the original and while it may look exactly like the word processing version, it has no editing capabilities. That is true even after it’s converted to PDF.
Just how difficult is it to create a PDF document? If you can print a document, you can make a PDF. It depends on the PDF creation software you use, but the creation process is that simple. So, let’s talk software.
PDF Creation Software
The most comprehensive – and most expensive – PDF creation application is Adobe’s Acrobat. Acrobat Standard costs $299 and other editions are even more expensive. It does have lots of features including OCR (optical character recognition – the ability to convert scanned text into editable text), but unless you’re doing serious PDF creation and manipulation it’s probably overkill. Acrobat is available for both Windows and Mac systems.
At the other end of the cost spectrum is PDFcreator. This open source (as in no cost) Windows option installs as a print driver. To create a PDF document, you just print it with PDFcreator selected as your printer. This means that any application with a print feature can create a PDF document – genealogy software immediately comes to mind. A very nice howto article is available at linux.com (don’t ask).
There are several other low cost options for Windows users. Both CutePDF and Foxit offer additional PDF editing functionality. CutePDF offers both a free and a pro ($50) version. The free version requires you to also have Ghostscript installed. Foxit offers several packages. The Foxit Creator ($35) creates a virtual print driver – similar to PDFcreator. Foxit Page Organizer ($59) is needed to rearrange, split or merge PDF documents and the Organizer Pro ($99) also includes annotation features. The Foxit Editor ($99) allows you to combine PDF documents and make changes to displayed text.
Mac users have PDF creation built into the print command. At the bottom of the print dialog window are several options for “printing” to PDF. The latest version of Mac’s Preview application includes some basic editing functionality, but if you need more, you can purchase PDFpen beginning at $49.95.
You’ll also find that other applications are including PDF generation as a feature in their software. OpenOffice.org [an open source office suite that requires an article of its own to completely describe] provides PDF creation features in all its applications, as does WordPerfect Office ($120 and up). Check your favorite applications to see if PDF capabilities are included in them.
UPDATE: Mac users have another option for manipulating PDF documents. PDFLab is a freeware application with tools for merging and splitting PDF files. MacApper has the details on this application and its capabilities.