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What Is a GEDCOM File and What Can I Do With It?

By Family Tree Editors Premium

Written by Rick Crume, unless otherwise noted

You’ve seen it mentioned on your favorite websites and in practically every issue of our magazine. Thousands of family historians use it to save and swap their data. But for many roots researchers, it’s one of genealogy’s enduring mysteries. We’re talking about GEDCOM, of course—that ubiquitous acronym for GEnealogical Data COMmunications, the standard computer file format family historians use to exchange information.

Though most people have little trouble using their genealogy software to enter data and print reports, handling GEDCOMs can be intimidating. Fear not: Our primer provides step-by-step instructions for creating and using GEDCOM files.

What is a GEDCOM file?

Q: How do I get a GEDCOM file? Do I have to buy it, download it or what?

A: GEDCOM is a computer file format that lets genealogists swap information about their ancestors. The format’s compatible with all genealogy software, so no matter what program you use, you can open GEDCOMs created with another program — and other researchers can open your files.

You don’t have to buy a GEDCOM, but you do need a genealogy program to create or open one. You can’t use GEDCOMs in other types of software, such as word processors (Word) or web browsers (Google Chrome). You can get a GEDCOM file several ways:

  1. Create a GEDCOM file of your family data using genealogy software (this is the only way to get a GEDCOM file from your own family tree information). The process is easy, but varies slightly depending on your software. In general, you’d open up the program and pick Export GEDCOM (or a similar command) from a menu. Then you’d click through a few dialog boxes that ask you questions or give instructions.
  2. Download someone else’s GEDCOM file from the Internet. Genealogists post their GEDCOMs on websites such as RootsWeb WorldConnect. You can search these sites to find a match for one of your ancestors, and if you do, you can download the GEDCOM — with all the family information in the file; not just on the one matching person — to your computer. Then you’d use your genealogy software to “merge” the data from the GEDCOM into your own family file (after verifying it, of course).
  3. Share a GEDCOM file the same way you’d share any computer file — for example, by e-mailing it or saving it to a disk.

Answer provided by Allison Dolan, from the December 2004 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

GEDCOM basics

We’ve explained what GEDCOM stands for—but what does it mean for your family history research?

If you think of computer file formats as languages, GEDCOM is the one that all genealogy software “speaks.” Each family tree program has its own default file format (called a proprietary format), which other software usually can’t “translate.” But every program can read and write GEDCOM files, too.

That means you can share your family information with your relatives, even if you use different programs. You also can contribute your work to online databases such as FamilySearch Memories, or download a fellow researcher’s data and add it to your own family file—without retyping anything.

The catch: Because those proprietary formats treat information differently than GEDCOM does, data doesn’t transfer perfectly. Some genealogy programs read Family Tree Maker (FTM), Personal Ancestral File (PAF) and other file formats directly—no GEDCOM conversion required. That can save time and produce more accurate results, so see if your software offers this option before using a GEDCOM file.

Opening a GEDCOM file is simple. In Windows, just double-click on the file (GEDCOMs have the file extension .ged, as in smith.ged), and it should open with your genealogy software. Accept the default file name and location, and your program will “import” the file—basically, it creates a copy of the GEDCOM file in your software’s proprietary format.

Sharing a GEDCOM file

That’s the quickest method, but you’ll get better results with a little extra effort. Just follow these 8 steps to share your GEDCOM file:

1. Locate the file.

Once you’ve downloaded a GEDCOM file or received one as an e-mail attachment, note its location on your computer’s hard drive or removable drive. You might want to save all your GEDCOM files in a folder named GEDCOM.

2. “Stamp” the records.

RootsMagic and Legacy Family Tree let you add a source (a person’s name, address and e-mail address) to each fact in an incoming GEDCOM file so you know where the information came from. If you use a different program, Progeny Software’s GEDmark can mark the source information on each record in the GEDCOM file before you import it into your family file.

3. Select the file.

Start your genealogy software and select File>Import File. Locate and select the GEDCOM file, then click OK.

4. Import the file.

Most programs will now ask you if you want to add the data to your existing file or create a new one. We recommend viewing the new data in a separate file before adding it to your existing family file.

5. Link the multimedia files.

If the GEDCOM’s creator attached pictures, sound or video, you’ll have an extra step: Copy the picture files to your computer and make sure the links in your new family file still point to the pictures. Suppose the sender kept the images on drive C in a folder called Genealogy Pictures within the My Pictures folder. The links should work if you keep the pictures in an identically named folder at the same location.

6. If you click on a link to a picture in PAF and it can’t find the image, the program will prompt you to locate the file.

Then it will ask if you want to change the paths to all the multimedia links in the file to the new path you specified. Answer “yes.” As long as you kept all the images in the same folder, the links will be updated correctly.

7. For Family Tree Maker users, it’s better to share FTM files, not GEDCOMs

Family Tree Maker’s GEDCOMs don’t include multimedia links, and FTM can’t import the multimedia links in GEDCOM files created with other programs. But FTM does store multimedia files—not just links—within its own format. So if you’re sharing a file with another FTM user, it’s better to exchange FTM files, not GEDCOMs.

8. Merge duplicate records.

When you add a GEDCOM file from another researcher or from a pedigree database, you may end up with duplicate records for the same person. One record might show the person’s descendants and the other his or her ancestors, for instance. By merging those duplicate records, you’ll create a continuous family line from the person’s descendants to his or her ancestors. And as your family file grows, eliminating duplicate entries will help cut down on confusion.

From the People pull-down menu in Family Tree Maker (FTM), you can choose from two merge options: Use Merge Specific Individuals if you already know which individuals should be merged. Or select Merge Duplicate Individuals and the program will search for possible duplicates. Bypass the somewhat confusing Display Merge Report and go ahead and Merge Matching Information. FTM automatically finds pairs of potentially identical individuals, displays their information side by side and lets you choose which pairs to merge.

Keep in mind that if you merge two individuals with conflicting information (different birth dates or places of death, for example), the information from both individual records will usually be retained as alternate facts. A few facts, such as name, sex, address and phone number, don’t store alternates, however. Buttons appear next to these facts when they conflict so you can choose which version you want to keep.

After comparing the information for both names, click on either the Merge or Don’t Merge button and continue through the list of possible matches. If you make a mistake, you can undo all the merges at any time before you exit the program by selecting Undo File Merge from FTM’s Edit menu. When you finish merging, you may want to edit the individual records that you just merged and delete any incorrect facts. From the View menu, select Reports, then Alternate Facts to get a list of people who have conflicting facts.

You can merge duplicate individuals manually in Generations, but the process goes much quicker with the program’s Match and Merge function. Select Match Merge from the Find pull-down menu in EasyTree. This option lets you find matches for the couple on the screen, marked people or everybody; you can then compare those matches with just marked people or every name in your file. You can also search on identical or similar names and specify the range of birth and death years for qualifying matches.

Click Match and the program will display a list of names at the top. When you click on a name, possible matches appear below. Three columns show each person’s date and place of birth and date of death, but you can click on the column headings to compare any piece of information, such as occupation, religion or burial place. Select the names you want to merge from the top and bottom portions of the screen, then click on Merge to combine the two records. No events, facts or notes are lost. For example, if one record has a birth date of Feb. 14, 1892, and the other one has a birth date of Feb. 14, 1894, the newly merged record will have separate birth fields for both dates. Once you’re done merging records, you may want to edit them to delete events or facts you know are wrong.

Other GEDCOM merging software

The internet has made swapping family tree files a snap. In fact, at sites such as WorldConnect and FamilySearch, it’s possible to add several generations to your pedigree just by downloading a few GEDCOM files (the universal family tree file format). The downside of internet genealogy is having to figure out which people in those GEDCOM files (if any) are actually related to you. Yes, the names may be the same, but names alone don’t make a match.

Before entering that data directly into your master file, it’s important to double-check it. But what’s a genealogist to do with a file containing hundreds of names? Enter two new programs designed to deal with that problem.

GENMatcher

This Windows-based program from MudCreek software quickly compares two files for matches, or searches one file for duplicates. It can compare GEDCOMs as well as files generated by Personal Ancestral File, The Master Genealogist, Legacy Family Tree and Family Tree Maker. This makes the program especially useful if, say, you want to compare your Family Tree Maker file to your cousin’s Legacy file.

After you select two files for comparison, the program starts making matches. For each possible match, GENMatcher displays both files’ data on that ancestor side by side. Thanks to color-coding (which you can customize), it’s easy to see at a glance which items match up perfectly and which need further investigation—matches appear green, and nonmatches appear pale yellow.

If you’re not confident about a match, click on the Family, Pedigree and Descendants tabs. These views provide details on an individual’s spouse(s), children and ancestors, so you can make sure you have the right person.

Want to print the results of your comparison before adding the new data to your master file? Use the Reports feature (under the File menu) to create a summary. To read the report later, save it as a PDF, HTML, Rich Text Format (RTF) or graphic file.

GENMatcher’s user-friendly interface and practical application make it an excellent choice for any genealogist. Not only is it simple to use, it’s a real timesaver, particularly for people who do a lot of file sharing.

You can download GENMatcher for mudcreek.ca/genmatcher.htm.

GenMerge

This program from Pleiades Software Development takes file matching a step further by comparing data from multiple GEDCOM files and then merging the data into a new GEDCOM file. (It also eliminates duplicates in a single file.) In minutes, GenMerge can process up to 200,000 individuals at a time.

Although most full-fledged genealogy programs have a merge function, GenMerge goes a step further: It uses a record-linking method that compares not only an ancestor’s personal data, but also his family’s data, which helps to ensure accuracy. GenMerge even analyzes the people in your file with only a first or last name.

Unlike GENMatcher, GenMerge doesn’t color-code results, so the data’s harder to read at a glance. But the program does offer statistical reports with amazing depth. Before merging your GEDCOMs, GenMerge scours each file for duplicates and inconsistencies. It then generates a series of reports detailing the analysis. Because GenMerge doesn’t change your original files, you can make necessary corrections, then run the program again, review the results and (if needed) make further changes.

Once the files are clean, you can instruct the program to merge them. When it’s done, GenMerge will generate the same set of reports, so you can see the additions to your “main” file—a copy of your master file—as well as high-scoring failures (people who look like they should merge, but have conflicting parent or grandparent data). If you find problems with your data, just fix the master file and try again.

GenMerge can save hours of time you’d otherwise spend poring over potential matches and manually updating files. Once you’re happy with the GEDCOM created by GenMerge, you can make it your new master file. (I recommend keeping the old master file as a backup, just in case.)

You can download GenMerge from www.genmerge.com.

Nancy Hendrickson

Sharing GEDCOM files with others

Now that you know how to import and merge GEDCOMs, it’s time to share them with others. Simply use the process below and you’ll be swapping files in a flash.

  1. Pick people. After choosing File>Export, select which individuals to include in the GEDCOM file. You might choose specific people, families, ancestors or descendants.
  2. Select from the options. Should the GEDCOM file include notes and sources? They’re important, unless you’ll use the file just to create a wall chart. Should it include multimedia links? That’s a good idea, unless you’re submitting the file to a pedigree database, which can’t accept multimedia anyway.
  3. Leave your mark. Once you share a GEDCOM file, it’ll probably get passed on to other researchers—before you know it, your data could appear all over the Internet. Be sure to “stamp” your name and contact information on each record using GEDmark, so people know how to reach you (see step 2).
  4. Copy the multimedia files. Don’t forget to send your multimedia files with the GEDCOM file, along with a note giving the files’ location on your computer.

See? GEDCOMs aren’t really that mystifying, after all. Once you’ve mastered these steps, you’ll become a GEDCOM guru—and be able to concentrate on solving your enduring research mysteries.

A version of this article appeared in the August 2005 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

Related Reads

Protect your hard work! Keep a copy of your Ancestry.com family tree by downloading a GEDCOM file. We’ll show you how in seven steps.
Here’s how to share a GEDCOM from RootsMagic with just a branch of your family tree, including associated photos and documents.

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