President Obama's PDF Team Could Use Some Help

February 27, 2009 - 2:00am ||| 0 Comments | Add new

So … the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (aka "the stimulus bill" aka "H.R. 1") … have you downloaded it yet? You can do so by going to this page and clicking the link to the PDF:

You don't have to download it right now, but just know that it's a regular PDF, very long (575 pages), full of text. 

Rush Limbaugh vs. PDF
It cracked me up to learn that uber-conservative Rush Limbaugh ranted about the document's PDF format being a sneaky plot of the "Obama Democrats." On his February 13th 2009 broadcast — which was the same day as the Congressional vote on the bill — Rush informed his listeners:

"They have reformatted the bill. They've made it a PDF file when they posted it. Now, for those of you that don't use computers, basically what that means is that it cannot be keyword searched. A PDF file is essentially a picture of a page, and so you can read every page but you cannot keyword search it. It's not a text file as legislation normally is, as posted on these public websites. They don't want anybody knowing what's in this."

(Full transcript:

I guess Rush didn't bother to actually *open* the PDF, where he would have seen a large text box in the default toolbar with the word FIND in it, even in Reader. Hint, hint. And indeed, the entire document is searchable text … I tried it myself just to make sure.

As Kurt Foss said in his blog post (where I first read about this), if Rush was pining for "a text file as legislation normally is," he could've have chosen Save as Text from Reader's File menu. It took Kurt under a minute to save the entire 575-page PDF to a text file.

Kurt offers a few more helpful Reader tips for Rush and his staff in this post:

The White House Needs an Acrobat Trainer
Okay, so Rush is a PDF noob, but so are tens of thousands of others. They're looking for the familiar menu bars from Word or Notepad, and when the comparatively mysterious Reader toolbar appears instead, they freak out a bit.

What could the White House communications department have done to make the PDF easier to deal with for Rush Plenty!

Open the thing and you'll find it's a pretty raw export to PDF (from a program called "ACOMP.exe" per Acrobat's File > Document Properties). It's not tagged for accessibility. There are no bookmarks. No navigation buttons. No metadata. There aren't even any page numbers!

Here's what I would do to the file in Acrobat before securing it and posting it to the web site for general distribution:

  1. Add page numbers, probably centered in the header or footer, where I'm seeing plenty of white space. Do this right in Acrobat, in the Document > Header & Footer > Add dialog box (look for the Add Page Number button). Makes it easier for the "drive-by media" (to use Rush's term) to refer to specific pages.
  2. Add metadata in File > Properties. I don't mean add keywords for SEO … I don't think the US government's web site needs to be optimized for search engines … but at least add the proper title to the thing: "H.R. 1: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009."
  3. Set the PDF to open with the Title in the title bar instead of the file name. Do this in File > Properties, in the Initial View tab. While you're there you may as well click the Initial View tab and set the Magnification to Fit in Window, always a nice touch, so regardless of the size of your Reader window or monitor the entire first page is visible at the start.
  4. Add bookmarks. This thing is crying out for bookmarks. Consider setting the bookmarks panel to open by default (in Initial View, see above) for the noobs.
  5. Embed an index so searching the document is nice and fast. I explained how to do this in DesignGeek 62, "Faster Searching in Big PDFs."
  6. Set up the PDF to open the Search panel automatically. For the ultimate in kindness to end users (and to prevent Rush-like confusion in the first place), I'd set up the PDF so that the Search panel opens by default. It's one of my favorite PDF tips! I included a video tutorial showing exactly how to do this in my latest title for, Acrobat Pro 9 Tips and Tricks. (Or you can read the how-to in the next story.)

Now … if any reader has White House connections, could you do us all a favor and forward this article on to them? And let them know I'm available for a training session via Connect. A couple hours should do it. ;-)


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