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So What's a GEDCOM?

    Here’s a topic that came up at our local genealogy club.   Many members aren’t really sure what a GEDCOM is or how to use it.  So next week at our meeting I’m going to talk about it.   Here’s summary if you, too, are wondering.

    GEDCOM is an acronym for GEnealogical Data COMmunication.  It is a standard for exchanging genealogical data between different genealogical software programs without retyping.  In the “old days” (pre 1990) the only way to get information from one genealogy program to another was to retype it.  Even as new programs appeared with greater flexibility and options, many people stayed with their original program rather than retype all of the information. 

    Developed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (LDS) about 1985,  GEDCOM was a proposed file format standard (not a program) to allow different software programs to exchange data.  Although originally only supported by the LDS program (PAF), it eventually caught on and today, all genealogical database programs, as well as online databases such as Ancestry, FamilySearch and social networking sites such as Geni read GEDCOM files.  The version currently in use is version 5.5.  A newer version, 6.0 (XML) was proposed by in 2003, but it never caught on.

    If you export your genealogical data to a GEDCOM and look at it in a text program, you’d see a list of information that looks like this.


1 SOUR Reunion

2 VERS V9.0

2 CORP Leister Productions

1 DEST Reunion

1 DATE 26 JAN 2009


1 FILE Moughty Family File 9


2 VERS 5.5


0 @I2@ INDI

1 NAME John /Moughty/



2 DATE BEF 1901

1 OCCU Shopkeeper

1 _UID ADC7720F8C414F439249E67B47A23C4C0164

1 FAMS @F2@


2 DATE 19 MAR 1995

    Each record begins with a 0, so the first record is the Header information, including the source program, version number and date (information in black above).  Each individual then begins with a 0 and the record contains each piece of data along with a “Tag” or explanation, i.e., BIRT for birth, PLAC for place, etc. (information in green above). You can actually read the information, but why would you want to?  The destination program will import this information, read it and parse it into the new format.

    Sounds simple...and basically it works.  There are times, however, when the structure of two different programs can cause some translation problems.  Let’s say you record a date as “aft 1840 and bef 1850”  in one program, but the receiving program does not allow that context.  The receiving program may use only the first date, or may leave the field blank.   Luckily, most programs will provide an error log, so you’ll need to review the information carefully to make certain there are no errors.

    One of the things that frustrates me when using GEDCOM is the translation of source citations.  My primary program is Reunion and I can place a source citation anywhere in a field and it remains where I’ve placed it.  My notes fields typically contains paragraphs of information with citations throughout the text, yet when I open the file in a PC program, all of my source citations move to the end of the note field.  In other words, the citations are no longer attached to the information they cited, but piled up at the end of the entire field.  Oops!

    If you need to move your information from one program to another, GEDCOM sure beats retyping all of the information, but it’s not perfect and will require proofreading.   Next week we’ll look at the application of GEDCOM for utilizing feature of multiple programs

    I’ve added some excellent reference sites on my Links page if you would like to learn more about GEDCOM.

    Happy Hunting!

© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2018