The ABCs of PDFs

The PDF format is a common document format—we use it all the time, but it’s a good idea to look under the hood at why it’s so popular! This guide will cover the basics of PDFs, why it is useful, when a PDF is a good document format to use, and how to produce a document in PDF formats.

What is PDF?

PDF is an acronym for Portable Document Format. Adobe® Portable Document Format (PDF) is a nearly-universal standard for electronic document distribution worldwide. Adobe PDF preserves all the fonts, formatting, graphics, and color of any source document, regardless of the application and platform used to create it. Adobe PDF files are compact and can be shared, viewed, navigated, and printed exactly as intended by anyone with free Adobe Acrobat® Reader® software or with a browser that has a PDF viewer. Most modern web browsers have a PDF viewer that launches automatically when a PDF needs to be rendered.

Benefits of Using PDF Files

  • PDF files are platform independent, meaning they are readable and printable from a wide variety of devices and software applications.
  • They offer compression features.
  • They offer some control over how a document is used—for example, you can create a document that cannot be printed or that is password protected.
  • They are accessible through a wide variety of software, and many programs offer the option to export/convert content into PDF format.
  • They are simple to create, even if the program does not offer an Export to PDF feature. Any printable document within a program can generally be made into a PDF document.

Drawbacks to Using PDF Files

While PDFs are easy to create, share, and distribute, the format was not designed to make it easy to modify content. Adobe Acrobat Professional (as opposed to the Reader) is needed to modify PDF documents and do other advanced tasks. Through JourneyEd, for Lehigh use only, the cost is around $83 (contact LTS for licensing details). Acrobat Pro is not available by default on most campus computers. If you do not have Acrobat Pro, it is generally easier to edit the content in whatever program was originally used to create it and then create a new PDF. If you do not have the original document in its native format, it may be possible to scan the PDF with an OCR (optical character recognition) scanner so that it can be edited. Both Libraries have book-edge scanners with this functionality. The option will work best if the document has a simple layout.

Adobe Acrobat Professional (Pro) vs. Adobe Acrobat Reader

The main difference between Acrobat Pro and Acrobat Reader is in the functions you can perform.

  • Acrobat Pro enables you to create and modify PDF documents and control what people can do with them, whereas Acrobat Reader only allows you to view and print PDF documents.
  • Acrobat Pro lets you review and markup a PDF document and insert comments, while Acrobat Reader can only view markup and comments others have made.
  • Acrobat Pro can create forms documents, so that others can fill out—but not change—the form; Acrobat Reader only allows you to fill out a form that was previously created.
  • Acrobat Pro also makes it possible to specify restrictions on a document, such as encryption and password protection. With Pro you can limit the ability to copy or print the document.
  • Acrobat Reader is free; Acrobat Pro is not. Lehigh provides Acrobat Pro on specific computers in a limited number of locations.

Do I need Acrobat Pro?

You do not need Acrobat Pro to view or print PDF files, or to create simple pdf documents. Microsoft Office applications can be used to save or export the documents as PDF. Free applications such as PDF995, and web applications such as, offer creation and conversion of PDF documents. PDF995 displays a popup ad during the creation/conversion process.

Adobe Acrobat Professional can be used to do the following:

  • Directly edit any PDF file
  • Restrict the ability to print or copy
  • Create or edit fill-in forms
  • Use redaction tools (Redaction is the process of permanently removing visible text and graphics from a document. You use the Redact tools to remove content.)
  • Acrobat Pro can be purchased through JourneyEd or any academic software retailer.

Converting Between Office Documents and PDF

Microsoft Office documents can be exported in PDF format. See this Microsoft Support document "Save or Convert to PDF."
With Word 2013 and 2016, you can also convert a PDF into an editable Word document. See this Microsoft Support document "Edit PDF content in Word."

Test drive Acrobat Pro!

Not sure if you need Acrobat Pro, or do you need it infrequently? Acrobat Pro is available at two scanning stations behind the LTS Help Desk in the EWFM Library; one scanning station at Linderman; and in the Digital Media Studio in EWFM Library.