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Understanding the Genealogy Term GEDCOM Files

GEDCOM is an acronym for Genealogical Data COMmunication. GEDCOM was developed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The current release is 5.5. The GEDCOM format was created to help standardize the ability to export and import files from one genealogy program into another. To understand how this is accomplished, some terms need to be explained.

Standard Programming Terms Used for Storing Genealogy Data

Tags: are generally four (4) characters in length and are mostly predefined. Custom tags can also be created. Tags allow a field to occur any number of times within a record. Tags are set in a hierarchy that is used to capture and store the data associated for people's names, events, sources, notes, media, etc. The concept is similar to storing information in a spreadsheet.

GEDCOM Files Provide Tags and Fields

Hierarchy: The beginning of a new logical record is designated by a line whose level number is 0 (zero). Each new level number must be no higher than the previous line plus 1.

Fields: Stores the data for each tag. The programmer defines how many characters can be stored in a field. Records: The field and tags that belong together are records. Computer Language: is how a program reads and writes the characters (A-Z, numbers, etc.) stored on a computer.

Understand the Hierarchy of GEDCOM Tags

Screen Overview: Although you see "Given Name" as part of the screen where you input your data, the tag that actually stores the information is GIVN. Tags are created in a hierarchy so information stays together. SURN, GIVN, and NICK are subsets of NAME. DATE and PLAC are subsets of birth and death.

Compatibility Issues Due to Tags

So the concept of following a standard seems simple enough and the data from one program should transfer seamlessly to another, right? Well, that is not necessary what happens. Programs do not all work the same and information may not be transferred from one program into another.

There are many GEDCOM tags that are used to store family genealogy information. A company may decide that some tags are not important to them, so they exclude them.

Programmers can manipulate tags in three (3) ways. When importing a GEDCOM file from one program to another they can write executable changes to tags where they combine two tags into one upon importing the information into their program. They can also change a tag name, or decide which sublevel belongs to which tag.

Custom tags can also be created which may not be readable in other family tree software programs. This is mainly seen with source citation templates, and the extra information that they store. Individual and marriage events are allowed to be custom as per the GEDCOM standard, and most programs do read and write them. Below are the standard individual events:

Standard GEDCOM Individual Events

Programs Tested with Standard GEDCOM Programming

We tested several programs to show that not all programs import and export information the same. As genealogists this may help you decide which program you would or would not want to use. The test was conducted by creating a GEDCOM file with certain tags. The file was imported into the new program, saved, and then exported as a GEDCOM. Both files were then opened in notepad and compared what happened to the information and the tags. The results below are to help genealogists understand that they may lose family history data going from one application to another.

Internet Genealogy Programs Provide Options for Import and Export of GEDCOM Files

PC Genealogy Programs Provide GEDCOM File Information

Screen Overview

Ok indicated the information transferred from the import and export successfully.
N/A indicates the information did not transfer properly. Shortened indicates the field does not have enough space to accommodate the original text.
Added indicates tags were added during the export process from the imported program vs. the original data. See note indicates further information about the tag was captured. Read the test results in the notes section.

Notes for Each Tested Program

Ancestry.com Sources were not attached to events and did not show up under the person's timeline. REPO: AUTH, PUBL, NOTE, and TEXT did not show up anywhere in the program, but the information did import as it showed up in the export with the caveat that the NOTE and TEXT was combined into 1 tag.

AgeLong Tree Converted @R to @S. Custom events did not import or export.

Family Historian Converted @R to @S

FamilyTreeMaker Sources that are not attached to events for a person are not shown in the family view. They are shown in the Source Group Tab.

Legacy Due to its Sourcing incompatibility, the file did not import correctly. The person's name and information did not appear in the program, but the file did read information and exported. The program added sentence structure to Events adding unnecessary data.

MyHeritage Only has TITL, PAGE, and TEXT tags for sources. We did not test the export feature, as it requires a subscription fee.

Reunion Combined SOUR tags: PAGE, TEXT, and NOTE to PAGE. Combined REPO tags: NOTE and TEXT to TEXT

RootsMagic Combined parts of the original NAME, TITL tags. It also combined SOUR Page and Text to 1 field. The program added standard events to each person which added an extra 22k per person to the exported GEDCOM file. Sources not added to events are not shown for the person.

The Master Genealogists Combined NOTE and TEXT into 1 field - NOTE. Custom events were converted into notes and misc events.

Tribal Pages Source Titles imported, but they were not attached to people or events. Program tags include: TITL, ABBR, AUTH, PUBL, TEXT, URL, TYPE, but the only tag that exported was TITL. You can add custom events, but only birth, marriage, and death events exported. The note added several lines of gibberish (ANSEL coding is used).

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GEDCOM Files and Sync Issues

Learn how genealogy programs work from a technical standpoint and why genealogy programs do not always sync your data from one application to another.