Adobe Agitation

Without extensive qualification, this is a working-through-hang-ups kind of entry. 
Warning: check.

Increasingly, I find myself annoyed by PDFs.  One or two PDFs, I can
handle.  When they come in lesser installments, I’m fine. But more than
that, and I bristle, fume.  In a graduate seminar, for example, I
understand that we might read widely from an assortment of sources.  I
think of PDFs as supplements, add-on, and because they’re harder to scale to the
screen’s dimensions, unlike fluid web texts with which I can enlarge the font, I
struggle to read them on the screen.  I can read scalable web texts on the
screen; even when the font is wonky, it’s easy enough to enlarge it or otherwise
alter it for readability.  Plus, I’ve been using Scrapbook for annotations,
highlighting, and tabbed browsing in Firefox keeps all of it manageable. 

PDFs, depending on how they’re laid out, can be nearly impossible to read on
the screen.  And so I print them out.  And I don’t mind printing them
out, especially when they come in the range of 1-3 per week, let’s say. 
But let’s just say they come in a wave of more than that–say 10 or 15,
hypothetically, of course.  If that were to happen, now I become a
book-making friggin print-house manager.  I have to print, collate,
arrange, run to the store for more printer cartridges, etcetera.  It bumps
the needle on my "busy work" dial into "Pain in the Ass" range.  Warning
lights start to blink.

I printed out 300 pages of PDFs last evening.  The docs were copied one
codex page to one PDF page, so gobs of white space make margin around a 5×7
peninsula of text.  Room for notations, I guess.  But I can only print
the PDFs single-sided, rather than double-sided, as I might do with a
photocopier.  Late Wednesday night, when I drove over to Kinko’s thinking
they’d have a way of helping me switch 15 PDF files from my USB drive to a
photocopier, through which I could churn them out back-front for under a dime a
page, it was another zinger to learn "Um, no, we can’t do that.  Print them
from the computers for 25 cents per page, but only if you’ve fewer than three
files."  I didn’t even try to talk about it, just thanked him and walked on

These intermediary forms leave a lot to be desired, and yet I get the feeling
that lots of folks see PDFs as the wondrous saving grace of print in a digitized
world.  PDF it, that’s easy. Easier even than pre-determined course packs. In fact, the department photocopier is set up
to PDF with amazing efficiency, even emailing it to you when the conversion of copy is complete. As I think through this, I guess I see it as a convenience to
teachers and an inconvenience to students.  It’s a kind of relocation of
the photocopier burden or paper chase from one to the other.  And I’ll be
using three PDFed chapters/essays with 205 students this spring.  It’s as much a matter of threshold, especially when variforms of text are criss-crossing
in all these different spaces, the result of confusion among incommensurable
mediations.  This morning when I opened yet another PDF–reading for a
Monday meeting–and found it, like to oh so many others to be a 1:1 scan, one
page per, and copied with huge smears of black toner-noise filling half of the
lower margin, I had an attack of PDF agitation.  Since both print and
digital texts are with us–all around us–and both necessary and pertinent, I’ll
continue to work on my hang-ups about PDFs, roll my neck until it pops, take a
deep breath, and carry on reading.


  1. A while back, Dennis offered a similar gripe about PDFs, and I’m in agreement with both of you: they’re the worst possible hybrid of print and digital; the modern-day equivalent of a fax. Data as form rather than data as content.

    For me, this brings to mind two things: first, a couple years ago, a graphic designer friend of mine gleefully showed off his meticulously Quarked-out resume that he’d saved as a PDF and put up online, so potential employers could see his mad design skillz and the content of his qualifications at the same time.

    Second, there’s the cutting-and-pasting you refer to, and the way that PDFs hinder it while plaintext facilitates it. PDFs, it would seem, make it harder to share data by reproducing it, and in such a way seem antithetical to the goals of those who seek a world of free-er information. Which takes me back to Dennis’s remark and my response to it, with the accompanying concerns of hierarchy versus distribution.


  2. PDF’s are, I hope, an intermediary step on the way to a digitized world. Their only use seems to be in sending a nondigitized text electronically, and so you either have to go to the trouble of using Scrapbook or printing out the page and highlighting and notetaking by hand, but in both cases, you’re having to perform extra steps just to be able to do what you could do in one step were it a digitized document.
    I hope that Adobe takes that next step because whenever I open a document and see a PDF attachment, I am much less likely to read it. Seems to me that anything digitized these days has got to be able to perform or conform to multiple functions/ programs to make it viable (and buyable, for that matter).

  3. Thanks for pointing me to your exchange with Dennis. I vaguely recalled that others had expressed concerns about PDFs, but I didn’t put much effort into searching for those conversations. The more I learn about design, the more arcane it seems to me to switch a document put together for paper to a PDF so that it can be circulated exclusively online. I know some documents really need this kind of switching around, but when assigned a mass of articles, I find it incredibly tough/frustrating to manage them.

  4. they’re a pain in the ass, especially as an inundation (& sometimes ’round here they come no other way. but trust me when i say they’re a marked improvement to last year, when sometimes they came as one-page huge unreadable tiffs instead!). i don’t feel guilty asking my students to pull down a few-page pdf once in a while, and they’re a helpful instant-solution to such problems as a textbook that doesn’t come in in time for you to assign the 1st chapter–because you know the readers will get the real thing in their hands, you just can’t do it fast enough. 3-4 50+ pagers at a time, though–multiple times–is definitely not what they were invented for… or if it was, they must have been out-invented by other things by now.

    not to mention that every time i go to close one, adobe crashes on me.

  5. Those added steps are what throw me off, Joanna. I agree with you on all counts; when I see a PDF, I feel a twinge of despair. And lately they’ve been coming in droves.

    Like you, Tyra, I use them for convenience but also with a sense of restraint. Of course, I think that’s easier with lower division courses, too, where the reading is very different than what we see in the CCR courses. Maybe Adobe has some genuis plan for making their docs more easily readable, but so many of them are just impossible, which means I churn them through the printer, move on.

  6. Hmmm, name-dropping alert. Last year, Chuck Geschke (my elementary school classmate), the co-founder of Adobe, said that the IRS was their biggest customer for PDF’s and Acrobat. My guess is the format was designed for major business and government operations and not for these academic uses.

    I was dismayed when I realized that CCC Online just uploads the print version of CCC in PDF files. I had hoped my chair’s address might include the images I used, but since the CCC editor had no budget for images, there were none in print and thus none online.

    I’m expecting you young whippernappers (led by Collin Brooke, the new CCC Online editor) to bring our professional publications into the 21st century.

  7. Figures that it’d be a market driven by the IRS. I think PDFs serve a purpose, but I worry when I think we don’t see them as PDFs anymore but rather as a natural and inevitable convenience for easier distributions of print. And yeah, I look forward to commencing with whippersnapping very soon.

  8. I like PDFs for articles and such, except for the one problem of annotating them. But I seldom print them. Does your program allow you to do page layouts that print two pages per page? That helps some, but not enough.

    The fact is that PDFs work to minimize paper only when the students in question are willing to read it on the screen. I used PDFs with that disclaimer. But if I were doing F2F courses, I would ask my students first and assuming that some or all of them might want “real” paper, I’d set it up at the copy center and let them pay for it.

    Of course, this assumes you know ahead of time what you want them to read for the whole semester….

    Regardless, though, 300 pages is just egregious. Some one needs to suggest to the instructor that this was the WRONG way to deliver this material.

    There’s plenty of good served by having documents available in PDF. But like e-mail (or maybe even blog posts) there is an etiquette issue, a length consideration, and a convenience factor to consider. I was thrilled when the IRS forms went online. Nothing was more frustrating to me than to find I needed some obscure schedule or instruction set and have to go downtown to the IRS office, hoping they actually had in it stock, or wait two weeks for it to come by mail. For that kind of thing, the PDF service is a godsend. Like all other tools, it has efficient uses and is prone to missuses. What you have described, Derek, is a distinct misuse.

  9. I appreciate your generous perspective, Chris. And I’ll concede that PDFs might be useful for some things. I just don’t think they’re widely perceived as a muddled form–a kind of jackass medium, we might say. When they’re designed carefully, they can be readable on the screen, but when they’re photocopies of a page (or a spread of two pages), they often run off the sides and the convenience of navigability is compromised. I’ve read and annotated PDFs on the screen, and I could break the document into screen-readable bits, but it just feels like a lot of hassle. The root of my frustration was a concentrated heap of PDFs all at once. In moderation, they’re almost tolerable.

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