What is a GEDCOM?

The following column appeared in print on April 9, 1916.

What is a GEDCOM?

Diane Lynn Tibert McGyver

Not long after I ventured onto the Internet, I stumbled upon my first GEDCOM. At first glance, I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was it had a connection to genealogy, but I didn’t take time to learn more. I was busy learning about surfing the web, sending email and deciphering html codes to build my first website.

The six-capital-letter word kept crossing my radar, so eventually I posed the question in Google: what is a GEDCOM? That was more than fifteen years ago and by now, I assumed everyone—at least genealogists—knew what it was, how to create one and their benefits.

Last week, however, I saw a blog comment with someone asking the same question I did. New genealogists—both young and old—don’t start the hobby with full knowledge of what all terms mean, so it’s important to revisit topics that haven’t been discussed in years.

GEDCOM is an acronym for GEnealogical Data COMmunication. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) developed it in 1984 to aid genealogical research. It is a proprietary and open de facto specification for exchanging data between different genealogy programs. To clarify, it is not a communication tool; it’s a file format.

In simpler terms, this software allows people to share information in a standard format regardless of the genealogical program they use.

The benefits of GEDCOM are numerous. Genealogists can quickly and easily share their data on websites and through email in a manner others instantly recognise. All modern genealogy programs come with the capabilities of reading and writing GEDCOM files. This saves times from retyping information to share with others.

More importantly, it saves the genealogist time when switching programs. For example, before GEDCOM became popular, if you entered your genealogical data into a program, then later switched to the next hottest thing on the market, you’d have had to manually re-enter your data into the new program. Now, as long as both programs—the one you’re currently using and the one you want to switch to—possess GEDCOM capabilities, you can import the data using the software.

Exporting a GEDCOM file allows genealogists to back up their files with ease, and not worry about programming issues.

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The downside is we don’t live in a perfect world and neither does GEDCOM. Problems may arise when transferring data from one program to another. For example, the exporting program may have multiple spaces to record notes for an individual and the importing program may have only one. Data could be lost or sent to the errors file.

Programs with significant differences importing and exporting GEDCOM files will have a greater chance of something going wrong, having a glitch in the data. A quick review of the data on the new program compared to the old program is needed to ensure it transferred accurately.

Another glitch in the system is multiple translations. If a GEDCOM is created in one program, imported by another, then exported to a third program, there is an increased chance of issues arising.

These problems aside, the ease of creating GEDCOM files has prompted many genealogists to share their data online. I’ve viewed many and after the first few, they become easy to recognise and easy to navigate to find information quickly.


If you found this information helpful, please consider buying me a cup of tea ($1.50) as if we had chatted at a cafe and I shared this with you. [Payment is through PayPal.]

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