PDF Tools & Tricks #2: Creating & Converting

In the last installment of our PDF Tricks & Tools Series, we showed you tools to annotate and take notes on PDFs.  This time, we’re going to introduce you to some tools to create or convert documents to PDF format, or from PDF to another format.

We find that many library users are under the mistaken impression that the only way to create PDF documents, extract text from PDFs, or convert them to another format, is to use Adobe’s commercial software called Acrobat Standard or Professional.  That’s certainly one option — and we are happy to provide several computers at our libraries with Acrobat installed for library visitors to use.  However, it’s not the only way to create or convert PDFs.  Below we’ll discuss a number of other options, all of which are free (unless otherwise indicated), that you can use on your own computer or mobile device.

  1. Output PDFs directly from Microsoft Office, Google Docs, OpenOffice or LibreOffice. Beginning with Office 2007 Service Pack 1, Microsoft offered users the ability to save any document edited in Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Publisher) as PDF.  To do so, simply pull down the File menu, select “Save As…”, then in the “Save As” dialog box, pull down the “Save as type” list and choose PDF.  OpenOffice and LibreOffice also offer similar capabilities.  In Google Docs, you can pull down the File menu, choose “Download As…” and select PDF.  It’s also possible to convert a whole batch of files to PDF at one time with Google Docs, by uploading them all into a folder and then converting the whole folder, as described in this how-to document.
  2. Install a free PDF “pseudo-printer”. Once you install one of these utilities on your computer, you will find another “printer” available when you go to print.  But when you select this “printer”, instead of the document being sent to a physical printer, it will be converted to PDF and you will be prompted to give it a filename so the PDF can be saved on your computer.  The advantage of this technique is that it can be used to create PDFs from practically any software that can print, including web browsers, email programs, etc.  There are quite a few such utilities available for Windows, including PDF24, Bullzip, and doPDF.  For MacOS or Linux, it is not necessary to install a third-party tool. On MacOS, this feature is already pre-installed; just look in the lower-left corner of your print dialog box for the PDF options.  On Linux, this feature is integrated into the standard CUPS printing system.
  3. Extract text from PDFs, or convert them to Word/Excel documents. The ability to extract text from a PDF can depend a lot on how the PDF was originally created.  In some cases, it may be possible for you to open the PDF in a PDF reader program, select the text, copy it, and then paste it into another document.  If that can’t be done, then you will need a program with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) capabilities to “read” the text from the original PDF.  If you have Microsoft Office installed on your computer (Windows or Mac), you may already have a free component called “Microsoft Office Document Imaging” that includes OCR capabilities. Another free standalone option for Windows is called FreeOCR.  Finally, Google Docs also has the ability to recognize text in PDF documents via OCR; just make sure that when you upload your PDF to Google Docs, you check the box labeled “Convert text from PDF and image files to Google documents,” and select the language the PDF is printed in, as explained in this how-to document.
  4. Use an online conversion tool. All of the options above are useful on a desktop or laptop computer, but many require installation of special software to do the conversions.  The Google Docs options listed above, however, don’t require any locally installed software; they only require a free Google account.  Other online options include Cometdocs, which can convert from Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Publisher to PDF or from PDF to any of those formats.  Another online converter, Zamzar, offers a feature that is useful for conversion from mobile devices: simply email a document to pdf@zamzar.com to convert it to PDF, or email a PDF to doc@zamzar.com to convert it to Word format. Finally, if you’re a Dropbox user and have it installed on your mobile device, you can easily convert documents to PDF by signing up for the easyPDFcloud service, setting it up to monitor one of your Dropbox folders, and then just depositing documents in that folder to be converted. When using any of these third-party online services, however, be very aware of their terms of service.  Online conversion services would generally not be a wise way to convert documents that are sensitive or private in nature.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our PDF Tools & Tricks series, where we will explore how to manage and organize your PDFs in support of your research projects.