PDF Tools & Tricks #1: Annotating & Notetaking

We see lots of students come into the library just before class to print a slideshow or document their instructor has just posted to Blackboard.  We also see plenty of people print journal articles just so they can use a pencil or highlighter to mark them up, or print out blank forms so they can fill them out with a typewriter. Have you been in that situation and wished you could save the trees and do all that on your computer or tablet?  You can — and here are some free or low-cost tools you can use to do it.

1. Adobe Reader X. If you’re still using version 8 or 9 of Adobe Reader, a simple upgrade can bring you a whole set of annotation capabilities.  Beginning in Adobe Reader X, you can select View > Comment > Annotations to enable the new “Annotations” toolbar, which allows you to highlight, underline, add a text note or sticky note — as long as the PDF document was originally created in a way to allow commenting.  In addition, you can enable the “Drawing Markup” toolbar to add a Text Box, Callout, Line, Arrow, Circle, Rectangle, Cloud, Polyline, or Polygon — or draw with a Pencil or Eraser tool.  Once you’ve made your notes and comments, you can save your annotated version.  This Adobe Help document includes information on how to comment & review using Adobe Reader X.

2. Foxit Reader. A very popular free alternative PDF reader — both for its functionality and quickness — Foxit Reader also offers a number of annotation and notetaking features.  Under the “Comment” menu, Foxit Reader allows you to add notes, highlight, underline, strikethrough, and more.  It also offers drawing tools: rectangle, oval, polygon, cloud, arrow, line, pencil & eraser.  One important feature that distinguishes Foxit Reader from Adobe Reader is the Typewriter tool. The Typewriter tool allows you to type text right on top of a PDF document, then save and/or print it.  Although some PDF forms are created to be filled out with Adobe Reader, the Typewriter feature in  Foxit Reader allows you to fill out even forms that weren’t originally created that way.  This blog post offers some observations on how grad students and other academics can use Foxit Reader’s annotation features.

3. Mac OS X Preview.  The default PDF viewer on Mac OS X also includes annotation and markup features as well.  Pull down the Tools menu and choose “Annotate” to add an oval, rectangle, note, or link.  To highlight, underline or strikethrough, simply select the text you want to mark up, pull down the Tools menu, and select “Mark Up” to choose the appropriate option.  For more, see this Macworld article.

4. For iPhone and iPad, there are a number of apps that offer varying levels of PDF annotation features, ranging from pdf-notes for free to PDFpen for $14.99, and many others in between.  This post from AppAdvice provides a listing and brief reviews of quite a few of these option.

5. For Android, Mantano Reader offers free and paid versions, both of which offer annotation features.


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 to convert it to PDF, or email a PDF to 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.

PDF Tools & Tricks: The Series

Some of our most common questions here at the library  have to do with the Portable Document Format, better known as PDF.  Our students, faculty and staff work with so many PDF documents — journal articles, ebooks, forms, syllabi, class notes, and much more — that they’re an essential part of the library’s daily life.

So over the next few weeks or months we want to share with you some of the free (or low-cost) tools and tricks that we have discovered that can help you work with PDFs more effectively and successfully.  The series of website posts will include the following topics:

  1. Annotating & notetaking on PDFs
  2. Creating PDFs & converting documents to/from PDF
  3. Managing & organizing PDFs
  4. Splitting, combining & rearranging pages of PDFs
  5. Locking, unlocking, and digitally signing PDFs
  6. Extracting and editing text from PDFs
  7. Viewing and embedding PDFs on the web (without viewer software)

Please let us know if there are any other topics or questions that you’d like us to cover.



Tools for Richer Teaching

The following resources and links were created to support a Professional Development presentation for the faculty of the Department of Health Restoration and Care Systems Management at the UT Health Science Center School of Nursing, on February 15, 2013.

The presentation show above were created using Prezi, a web-based “cloud computing” tool for creating dynamic presentations which is particularly good at expressing concepts when spatial/visual relationships can be used help convey meaning.  You can step through the presentation above by using the arrows at the bottom of the presentation display, or use the icon in the lower right corner to display full-screen.  You can also link directly to this presentation on Prezi.

Links to additional resources discussed in the presentation:

Note: this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of applications for these purposes; it’s intended to spark discussion, and barely scratches the surface of what’s available.  Health Science Center faculty who would like to discuss needs or ideas for these or other tools, please feel free to contact your friendly librarian for further consultation.

Upcoming free online courses

the word "learn" engraved in stoneIf you haven’t yet heard the term “MOOC,” you’ll want to start getting familiar with it.  MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — have taken higher education by storm this year, so much that the New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.”  As you may know, in October the UT System signed on as a partner with EdX, the MOOC platform that also includes MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, Wellesley, and Georgetown. You can learn more about MOOCs and their implications for higher education by reading “7 Things You Should Know About MOOCs” from the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, or review this selection of resources from the EDUCAUSE Library.

But one of the best ways to understand what MOOCs might mean to higher education — and to you — is to actually sign up and take one of these free, high-quality courses yourself.  And there’s no better time than the next few months, because the choices are rich, in the biomedical and health sciences and beyond.  Here are a few to consider:

For more, check out the catalogs and upcoming course listings for the Canvas NetworkCoursera, and EdX, or check out the very helpful combined listing at Class Central or reviews & ratings at CourseTalk.

Image credit: “learn” by Mark Brannan CC-BY-NC-SA

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