Unraveling the GEDCOM: Understanding the Standardized Format for Genealogical Data

Have you heard of GEDCOMs before? In this post, discover exactly what this term entails, its function and how to obtain one.

GEDCOMs might sound futuristic at first, but these programs have actually been around since the early 1980s – they just require accessing it through your computer or mobile phone.

Today is a good time to learn more about GEDCOMs because most of us were not using computers or doing genealogy research back then.

What exactly is a GEDCOM file?
GEDCOMs are files specially designed to store genealogical information such as that from family trees. They allow easy import and export between genealogy software programs and websites.

GEDCOM files typically end in “.ged”. So a GEDCOM file usually consists of the name of your family tree followed by ”

A GEDCOM file can be thought of in terms of similar to PDF or Docx documents – when someone sends us one we know that using Microsoft Word (usually) to open it would be necessary to view its contents.

PDF files work similarly, except there are more programs that can open them. PDF stands for “portable document format”, and was developed by Adobe for similar reasons as GEDCOM, to share documents regardless of technology used to access them.

Family tree building software programs typically support GEDCOM import and export files as an easy way to transfer your family tree between programs.

Some family tree researchers share GEDCOM files with other genealogists. There are ways of accessing GEDCOMs without using genealogy software.

What does GEDCOM stand for? Genealogy Data Communication stands for Genealogy Electronic Data Exchange Format Communication Model. “GE” stands for Genealogy Electronic Data Exchange Format while the “COM” stands for Communication Methods. Most websites offering family tree creation as well as software programs allow you to import and export GEDCOM files for easy transition from one program to the other.

Some family tree researchers share GEDCOM files with other genealogists. There are ways of reading GEDCOM files without the use of genealogy software.

What Does GEDCOM Stand for? GEDCOM stands for Genealogy Data Communication. “GE” stands for Genealogy, while “COM” represents Communication.

Namely because it only indicates a file extension while suggesting something more, the term is somewhat misleading. A file extension simply specifies in which format data in a file has been saved so we know which program we need in order to access it when it becomes necessary again.

However, due to it being known as GEDCOM for almost four decades now, there’s little chance of it receiving another name.

How Does GEDCOM Work? GEDCOM files are specially formatted texts written so other programs will quickly recognize them and organize into an easy to read and interpret form for genealogists.

Family tree software or websites typically create this file automatically when asked.

In theory, you could write your GEDCOM yourself using Windows Notepad provided you knew exactly what should go on each line. Unfortunately, however, family trees tend to grow quickly and complexity increases rapidly.

Below is an excerpt from my GEDCOM file, and while there may be some lines which make sense, I am glad a computer generated it for me:

1. William/Pabodie
3_APID 1,7249::107911931 We can then upload this GEDCOM file into another program or website; Gedmatch encourages GEDCOM uploads so users can use their DNA to discover more about their family trees.

GEDCOM may seem low-tech, yet its elegance lies in its simplicity.

How to get a GEDCOM file
Most genealogy software programs allow you to generate GEDCOMs at will. After the file has been generated, you’ll be able to save or download it into a folder on your computer.

Ancestry is one of the easiest places to build a family tree online, and downloading or exporting one from Ancestry’s tree settings page is very straightforward.

Other software may offer options to “save as” or export tree as a GEDCOM file.

If you don’t already have an electronic family tree in software or computer programs, one way of quickly creating a GEDCOM file would be by creating a free Ancestry account and entering in information about each of your ancestors and desired GEDCOM file items into it.

Export your tree as a GEDCOM file is then an easy option.

Once or twice every year or after making an important discovery in my family tree research, I export my genealogy as a GEDCOM file in order to have an archive of my findings safely stored on my computer that can be easily accessed if something should come up unexpectedly.

What information does a GEDCOM file hold?
GEDCOM files typically only store information, or data. Names, dates of birth, marriage and death as well as any additional data you’ve saved with relatives in your family tree program are typically saved within GEDCOM files.

Dependent upon the program that you used to build your family tree, the GEDCOM file may include sources that you have used in its creation. Furthermore, its structure ensures that relationships between members of your tree remain preserved when imported into new programs or websites, meaning it should import seamlessly as it did previously.

Your photos and documents won’t typically be included in GEDCOMs downloaded from sites such as Ancestry.

I hope that this article has provided you with all of the knowledge needed to use GEDCOM files effectively for family tree storage purposes, and will come in handy many times throughout your journey.

If there are any queries about what has been discussed here, feel free to join the dialogue below and reach out! I welcome all input into making my post more comprehensive for everyone’s reading pleasure!

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