Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Constructing PDF files for free

PDF files remain enormously useful for distributing both text and graphics in a universal and freely accessible format.  However, many people either don't know how to construct them or believe that expensive proprietary software is necessary.

More and more programs provide the ability to "export" or "save as" their content to the PDF format.  Recent versions of Microsoft Word do this.  The open source and freely available "office suite", OpenOffice, also provides the functionality -- it did so ahead of Word, perhaps providing some impetus for the latter's feature addition.  In fact, OpenOffice now offers a limited ability to import text from a PDF file so that it can be edited.

Further, there are a number of programs and utilities that allow for the construction of PDF files from disparate sources, especially via separate PDF files constructed by those sources.  One convenient and freely available program for doing this on Windows is PDFTK Builder.

PDFTK Builder can read individual pages or page ranges from multiple PDF files and combine them into a single, separate PDF file.  It can also perform some other straightforward tasks:  Splitting files, applying a background stamp to pages (e.g. a ghosted "Confidential" or copyright notice), rotating pages, and applying password protection against unwanted uses of file contents.

PDFTK Builder is a graphical front end to the command line toolkit PDFTK.  As is not infrequently the case with free and open source programs, the core functionality provides an interface that is lean in design.  The same development team or another one may separately create a graphic interface that packages that core functionality inside a prettier front end.

As an example of how all this can work, I recently needed to construct an announcement for a client's upcoming workshop.  The workshop had a flyer, and the presenter had a separate brochure describing their work.  An electronic version of that brochure was not available, making combining the elements a bit more interesting.  The client needed the announcement and the brochure to be held together, so that recipients didn't end up referring to the brochure and missing differing contact information that applied for the workshop.

I placed the flyer text into OpenOffice and then exported that to a PDF file.  For the brochure, I scanned it and tweaked the scans to reach a good compromise between image size and quality.  I then used the freely available and well regarded Irfanview graphics browser to "save as" those scans into two more PDF files.  Finally, I used to PDFTK Builder to combine the flyer and the brochure scans into a single, three page PDF file, reading each in from the separate PDF files I'd already created.

The result was a single PDF file carrying both the announcement and the brochure, and I was able to construct it in minutes while keeping my wallet in my pocket.  I don't mind paying for items that are of value to me, but I'm not going to pay several hundred dollars for a commercial program to create a single PDF file.  I had another option.  And now, so do you.

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