Notes from the Technology Trenches - Adding Value with Adobe Acrobat4.0; Tracking a Dot-Com's Potential Demise

Roger Skalbeck is the Technology Services Librarian and Webmaster at George Mason University School of Law in Virginia, and he is a web committee member for the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.  Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of his employer or any other organization. This column, of course, is 100% free of any legal advice.

By far the most widespread document format for emulating printed pages is Adobe's Portable Document Format. Also, it is becoming somewhat of a de facto standard for publishing public documents on the Internet. There are dozens of appealing aspects of the PDF format, not the least of them being widespread use of the format. With the use of the Adobe Acrobat 4.0 production software, you have several ways in which you could extend the value of electronic legal research. In this month's column, I will suggest some of the simple but effective methods to consider. Several ideas for this column have come from Mike Welsh, Legislative Librarian at Shaw Pittman in Washington, D.C. Welsh has been using Adobe Acrobat software for many years, producing compiled, searchable legislative histories and annotations for any number of public documents.

Before going any further, it is important to point out that these examples focus on ways in which you might use Adobe Acrobat 4.0 software in its full production version. This is not the free Adobe Acrobat reader, which most readers of this column will likely already have installed. The production software has to be purchased separately, and a single user version is priced at around $250.

Bookmarks and Annotations

If you obtain a PDF document to be provided to another person, such as a client or colleague, notes can be added directly into the document if it is not otherwise protected by security measures. Thankfully, most public document sources, such as the Federal Register or Congressional Bills from GPO Access, are not distributed with limiting security measures. Bookmarks and annotations are two of the quickest and most useful elements that can be added to documents. Annotations can be used to add short on-screen notes such as "I think this section means...", there is a highlighter pen, and you can use a drawing tool to add hand-drawn markings. Bookmarks can provide navigational markers for large documents, and in more advanced circumstances, links can be provided between PDF documents.

Basic vs. Annotated PDF file

  • H.R. 4180 – bill version in the basic format with no annotations
  • H.R. 4180 – bill version with bookmarks for logical sections, two attached notes, a hand-rawn annotation, and defaults within the file to open to a specific page

If you have ever had to wade through an omnibus appropriation bill to look for a single provision of interest, you will quickly appreciate the use of bookmarks. With a bookmark, you might locate and highlight a key phrase in a large document and then with a simple key stroke (<CTRL>-B) or appropriate click of the mouse, create a bookmark to that specific section. To illustrate some of these features, I have included two versions of a bill from the 106th Congress (which was downloaded from GPO Access).

Once the appropriate software features have been located, it takes only a few seconds to add the necessary annotations. Note that in order to be able to add features of this nature to a PDF document, you must first obtain a copy of it. If you are viewing a web page with a link to a PDF document, one of the easiest ways to download it is to click the right button on your mouse and select "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" (depending on the browser you are using).

PDF Conversion of Web Pages

As another option for adding value to electronic documents, you can convert web pages and word-processed files into PDF documents as well. On a very basic level, the Adobe Acrobat software works as a printer driver within almost any application. If Adobe Acrobat production software is installed on your computer, you can select “Adobe PDFWriter” as the printer type and create a fixed PDF document with virtually no more effort than printing a document.

For better formatting, you might also try to create them natively from within Adobe Acrobat. With this option, you simply select “Open Web Page” from the File menu within Adobe Acrobat, and get a clean, crisp document into the software in just a few seconds. Sites with frames, cascading style sheets or dynamic content might come out different than expected, but it is overall a great way to quickly convert diverse documents into a unified, fixed format.

Above are two examples of the same web page, which have been converted into PDF format. Both now have bookmarks within them, and the text of either can be searched. Note that the one produced natively within Adobe Acrobat 4.0 includes improvements such as background images and preserved Internet hyperlinks. Not all of this shows up though when viewed with version 3.0 of the Adobe Acrobat reader software.

With either approach, Adobe Acrobat production software can be used to normalize document formats, and can be a useful way to ensure that a document located today gets captured before it is unavailable tomorrow. For details on converting a web page to PDF format, along with other suggestions not covered in this column, check out Adobe's ePaper Center Tutorials. Included here is a slideshow-like presentation called Acrobat Annotate, which details other annotation options such as imbedding files, audio and similar techniques.

Building Databases

For circumstances in which you need to collect multiple documents to be searched as a group, such as with a legislative history, Adobe Acrobat can be employed to turn these into a localized database. The software allows you to create a search index for any number of PDF documents, which can be searched on a network, self-produced CD-ROM or other fixed storage location. This indexing will not replace indexes for web sites or sophisticated and distributed search engines, but it can be a tremendous help in bringing documents together. It is beyond the scope of this article to cover the myriad aspects of building databases with Adobe Acrobat software, but suffice it to say that it can be a tremendously useful tool, especially if you might typically collect most research materials in electronic format.

If you mount documents on an Internet (or Intranet) site after obtaining them, the database features of Adobe Acrobat will mostly likely be quickly dwarfed by those of another indexing method. Most advanced Internet indexing methods will provide indexing of text-based PDF documents, so the Adobe Acrobat software will be most useful for distributing document collections not intended to be available through an Internet site.

Beyond the few examples covered in this column, there are dozens of additional ways that the Adobe Acrobat software might be used to enhance the research collection and organization process. It isn't the best tool for all document-related situations, but it can be a very powerful addition to your research tool box.

Tracking a Dot-com's (potential) Demise

On a final note for this column, I offer some sites that might be useful for tracking the status of dot-com companies. Overall, these kinds of sites range from the gossipy to the informative to those with mostly voyeuristic values. These sites might be used for getting background on a company, checking to make sure that potential business partners are not suspected to be having troubles, or simply to track predictions that might well turn out to be false. Whatever the use, remember to check the source of any of this information, and remember to consider who might have posted the respective information before valuing it for your own purpose. Some of the more content-rich sites detailing dot-com demises are as follows:

  • Downside – The Investor’s Reality Check – The simple purpose stated on this site is: ” Downside's goal is to remind people that we're experiencing a financial bubble, and that financial bubbles always burst.” – This manifests itself in headline stories reporting on corporate bankruptcies along with the Downside deathwatch, which includes aggregated cash-flow analysis grids taken from SEC filings of the respective companies.
  • -- This site includes categorized news of failed, troubled, or rumored to be troubled dot-com companies, with sources ranging hyperlinked news stories to frequently anonymous comments submitted through the site. They also include a list of domain names and companies for sale, as well as a "lackey calculator" for computing a very rough value of stock options in a new job.
  • – this is the family-friendly version of the URL for a site that serves largely as a “deadpool” for companies. Where traditional deadpools, such as the one investigated by Dirty Harry in a 1999 film of the same name, have focused on the deaths of celebrities, this site focuses on the death of companies, based on rules posted on the site. As an aftereffect of this process, the site can also be a source for stories about potential troubles for dot-com companies. As it states on their web site, they have “turned into the source for news about dot-com companies. Bad news, that is.”

As always, if you have questions or comments on this column, please don’t hesitate to send me an email.

Copyright © 2000 Roger V. Skalbeck. All Rights Reserved.