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A file format used by PhpGedView and many other genealogy software to save and share data.


What exactly is a GEDCOM and how do I use it?

One of the biggest advantages to using the Internet for genealogy research is the ability it provides to exchange information with other researchers. One of the most common methods used for this information exchange is the GEDCOM, an acronym for GEnealogical Data COMmunication. In simple terms it is a method of formatting your family tree data into a text file which can be easily read and converted by any genealogy software program. The GEDCOM specification was originally developed in 1985 and is owned and managed by the Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The current version of the specification is GEDCOM 5.5 which was released on 12 January 1996. There was a draft for GEDCOM 5.5.1 (October 2nd, 1999) which was accepted by a number of programmers of genealogical software but this draft was never formally approved. On December 6, 2002 a beta version of GEDCOM 6.0 was released for developers to study. GEDCOM 6.0 will be the first version to store data in XML format.

A GEDCOM specification uses a set of TAGS to describe the information in your family file, such as INDI for individual, FAM for family, BIRT for birth and DATE for a date. Many beginners make the mistake of trying to open and read the file with a word processor. Theoretically, this can be done, but it is a very tedious task. GEDCOMS are best suited for opening with a family tree software program or a special GEDCOM viewer (see related resources). Otherwise, they basically just look like a bunch of gibberish.

Anatomy of a GEDCOM File

If have ever opened a GEDCOM file using your word processor, you have probably been faced with a seeming jumble of numbers, abbreviations, and bits and pieces of data. There are no blank lines and no indentations in a GEDCOM file. That's because it is a specification for exchanging information from one computer to another, and was never really intended to be read as a text file.

GEDCOMS basically take your family information and put it in an outline format. Records in a GEDCOM file are arranged in groups of lines that hold information about one individual (INDI) or one family (FAM) and each line in an individual record has a level number. The first line of every record is numbered zero (0) to show that it is the beginning of a new record. Within that record, different level numbers are subdivisions of the next level above it. For example, the birth of an individual may be given level number one (1) and further information about the birth (date, place, etc.) would be given level two (2).

After the level number, you will see a descriptive tag, which refers to the type of data contained in that line. Most tags are obvious: BIRT for birth and PLAC for place, but some are a little more obscure, such as BARM for Bar Mitzvah.

A simple example of GEDCOM records (my explanations are underlined:

0 @I2@ INDI <- The level 0 means this is a new record. The INDI tag means the record is for an individual.
1 NAME Charles Phillip /Ingalls/ <-name of individual
1 SEX M <- level 1 info denotes data about the individual in level 0, Charles Ingalls
2 DATE 10 JAN 1836 <- this is level 2, because it refers to the birth in level 1 above
2 PLAC Cuba, Allegheny, NY
2 DATE 08 JUN 1902
2 PLAC De Smet, Kingsbury, Dakota Territory
1 FAMC @F2@
1 FAMS @F3@
0 @I3@ INDI <-A new record (level 0) for a new individual
1 NAME Caroline Lake /Quiner/
2 DATE 12 DEC 1839
2 PLAC Milwaukee Co., WI
2 DATE 20 APR 1923
2 PLAC De Smet, Kingsbury, Dakota Territory
1 FAMC @F21@ <-FAMC indicates the FAM record where this person appears as a Child
1 FAMS @F3@ <-FAMS indicates the FAM record where this person appears as a Spouse

Tags can also serve as pointers (@I2@), which indicate a related individual, family or source within the same GEDCOM file. For example, a family record (FAM) will contain pointers to the individual records (INDI) for the husband, wife and children.

Here is the family record which contains Charles and Caroline, the two individuals discussed above:

0 @F3@ FAM <- this is family record #3, pointed to from the above individual records
1 HUSB @I2@ <- this is a pointer to individual record (INDI) I2, for Charles Phillip Ingalls 
1 WIFE @I3@
2 DATE 01 FEB 1860
2 PLAC Concord, Jefferson, WI
1 CHIL @I1@ <- these point to the individual records for the children 
1 CHIL @I42@
1 CHIL @I44@
1 CHIL @I45@
1 CHIL @I47@

As you can see, a GEDCOM is basically a connected database of records with pointers which keep all of the relationships straight. While you should now be able to decipher a GEDCOM with a text editor, you will still find it much easier to read with the appropriate software.

How Can I Read a GEDCOM File?

If you've spent much time on the Web researching your family tree, then it is likely that you've either downloaded a GEDCOM file from the Internet or received one from a fellow research via email or on floppy disk. So now you have this nifty family tree which may contain vital clues to your ancestors and your computer can't seem to open it. What to do?

How To Open and Read a GEDCOM File

Is it Really a GEDCOM?

Begin by ensuring that the file that you want to open is truly a GEDCOM file, and not a family tree file created in some proprietary format by a genealogy software program. A file is in GEDCOM format when it ends in the extension .ged. If the file ends with the extension .zip then it has been zipped (compressed) and needs to be unzipped first. See Handling Zipped Files.

Save the GEDCOM File to Your Computer

Whether you are downloading the file from the Internet or opening it as an email attachment, the first thing you should do is save the file to a folder on your hard drive. I've got a folder created under "C:\My Download Files\Gedcoms\" where I save my GEDCOM files. If you're saving it from email you may want to scan it for viruses first before saving to your hard drive (see Step 3).

Scan the GEDCOM for Viruses

Once you have the file saved to your computer hard drive, it is time to scan it for viruses using your favorite antivirus software program. If you need help with this, see Protecting Yourself from Email Viruses. Even if you know the person who sent you the GEDCOM file, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Make a Backup of Your Existing Genealogy Database

If you have a family tree file on your computer you should always make sure you have a recent backup before opening a new GEDCOM file. This will allow you to revert to your original file in case something goes wrong when you're opening/importing the GEDCOM file.

Open the GEDCOM File with Your Genealogy Software

Do you have a genealogy software program? If so, then begin your family tree program and close any open family tree project. Then follow the program's instructions for opening/importing a GEDCOM file. If you need help with this, then see How to Open a GEDCOM File in Your Genealogy Software Program. Be sure to look at the GEDCOM file by itself first, rather than opening or merging it directly into your own family tree database. It is much harder to figure out how to remove unwanted people, than it is to add new people later after you have reviewed the new GEDCOM file.

Generic Instructions for Opening a GEDCOM File:

  • This works for most family tree software programs. See your program's help file for more specific instructions.
1. Launch your family tree program and close any open genealogy files.
2. In the top-left hand corner of your screen, click the File menu.
3. Select either Open, Import or Import GEDCOM.
4. If .ged is not already highlighted in the "file type" box, then scroll down and select GEDCOM or .ged.
5. Browse to the location on your computer where you save your GEDCOM files and select the file that you want to open.
6. The program will create a new genealogy database containing the information from the GEDCOM. Enter a filename for this new database, making sure that is one that you can distinguish from your own files. Example: 'powellgedcom'
7. Click Save or Import.
8. The program may then ask you to make a few choices regarding the import of your GEDCOM file. Just follow the directions. If you're not sure what to select, then just stick with the default options.
9. Click OK.
10. A confirmation box may appear stating that your import was successful.
11. You should now be able to read the GEDCOM file in your genealogy software program as a regular family tree file.

Other Ways to Open a GEDCOM File

If you don't have a genealogy software program you can still open and read GEDCOM files. Many free and shareware programs are available which allow you to easily open and view GEDCOM files. You can find a collection of these here: GEDCOM Viewers.

How Can I Create and Share a GEDCOM File?

Do you want to share your family tree file with friends, family, or fellow researchers? Unless they use the same genealogy software program as you they will not be able to open and read your family file unless you send it to them in GEDCOM format. The same goes for most online pedigree databases which only accept family tree submissions in GEDCOM format. Learning to save your family tree as a GEDCOM file will make it much easier to share your family tree and connect with fellow researchers.

How To Save Your Family Tree as a GEDCOM File

All major family tree software programs support the creation of GEDCOM files. Creating a GEDCOM file does not overwrite you existing data or change your existing file in any way. Instead, a new file is generated by a process known as "exporting." Exporting a GEDCOM file is easy to do with any family tree software by following the basic instructions below. You can also find more detailed instructions in your genealogy software's manual or help system. You should also be sure to remove private information such as birth dates and social security numbers for people in your family tree who are still living in order to protect their privacy.

Generic Instructions for Creating a GEDCOM File:

  • This works for most family tree software programs
  1. Launch your family tree program and open your genealogy file.
  2. In the top-left hand corner of your screen, click the File menu.
  3. Select either Export or Save as...
  4. Change the Save As Type or Destination drop-down box to GEDCOM or .GED.
  5. Select the location where you'd like to save your file (make sure it's one you can easily remember)
  6. Enter a filename such as 'powellfamilytree' (the program will automatically add the .ged extension)
  7. Click Save or Export.
  8. Some type of confirmation box will appear stating that your export has succeeded.
  9. Click OK.
 10. If your genealogy software program does not have the ability to protect the privacy of living individuals, then try one of these GEDCOM privatizing programs to filter the details of living people from your original GEDCOM file.
 11. Your file is now ready to share with others (see below).

How to Share My GEDCOM File

Once you have created a GEDCOM file you can now easily share it with others via email, floppy disk/CD, or the Internet.

  • To share your GEDCOM file via email you will need to send it as an attachment to your email. Be sure to include a short note in your email telling the recipient what to expect in the attachment so that they won't delete it as a potential virus-laden attachment. You may also want to attach brief instructions on how to open the file or point them to my instructions on How to Open a GEDCOM File. If you need help with how to send attachments via email, then try How to Send an Email Attachment.
  • To share your GEDCOM file via snail mail you will need to save it to a floppy disk or burn it onto a CD.
  • You can also share your GEDCOM file with others online by uploading to one of the many pedigree databases which exist on the Web. The best of these promise not to sell your information for profit and allow for easy searching for matches against the names in your family tree.

GEDCOMs and PhpGedView

PhpGedView maintains a GEDCOM file on the web server as well as using a database to store the same information in a manor that allows quicker and easier searching and editing of the GEDCOM data. Although, most of the time you do not need to be aware of this it is helpful in understanding how GEDCOMs are added and used by PhpGedView.

Lineage-Linked GEDCOM Form

This is a model of the lineage-linked GEDCOM structure for submitting data to other lineage-linked GEDCOM processing systems. A header and a trailer record are required, and they can enclose any number of data records. Tags must be used in the same context as shown in the following form. User defined tags (see <NEW_TAG> ) are discouraged but when used must begin with an under-score.

0 <<HEADER>> {1:1} 
0 <<RECORD>> {1:M} 
0 TRLR {1:1}

External Links

Draft GEDCOM 5.5.1 Specification
Draft GEDCOM XML 6 Specification