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PDF processing: a behind-the-scenes but important update to the OAC

This week we changed how we process PDF documents on the Online Archive of California (OAC). Although this won’t result in any flashy new features on the OAC, it will improve the site’s functionality for both contributors and end users.

What PDFs?

When we released the new OAC interface in 2009, we introduced a feature that enabled end users to download PDF versions of encoded archival description (EAD) collection guides. PDF versions are especially useful for researchers who may want to print the guides and mark them up or bring them into the archives. So that contributors would not have to jump through the hoops of creating these PDFs and submitting them to the OAC, we developed a process for generating the PDFs based on the EAD files. We have continued to make improvements to the PDFs, including adding full support for Unicode character sets earlier this year.

What’s new?

The PDF generation process is resource-intensive (in terms of server processing), and it became less supportable after some changes to the CDL’s back-end technical infrastructure. This occasionally led to problems in the OAC site performance and delays in the publication of new collection guides.

We have accordingly reworked the PDF generation process to solve these challenges. Now, generation occurs every night “in the cloud” so it does not affect website operations. End users probably won’t notice any differences in using the OAC, except that the URLs for PDFs have changed slightly—and, of course, that the site performs better and faster than ever!

What’s next?

The OAC team isn’t done with PDFs. Currently we are working on a project that will enable OAC contributors to add supplemental PDF files (such as inventories) to EAD collection guides. We previously experimented with PDF attachments in the development of RecordEXPRESS (a quick web form for creating high-level descriptions); since its release we have had so many requests to attach PDF files to EAD collection guides that we have prioritized developing such a feature. For researchers, the end result will be more collection guides—and more information accompanying them—on the OAC.