The GEDCOM digital file format is essential to genealogy. My expert guest from FamilySearch explains what a GEDCOM is, how to use it, and the most recent changes. He’ll also answer some of the most common GEDCOM questions.
If you’ve been watching my videos for a while, then you probably know that I really recommend that you have a complete copy of your family tree on your own computer. But what if you’ve been building your family tree totally online up to this point?
The good news is that you can export your family tree as a GEDCOM file. But what exactly is a GEDCOM file?
Gordon Clarke, the GEDCOM Developer Relations Manager at the free genealogy website FamilySearch.org joins me to answer that question and provide the latest information about the GEDCOM.
What is a GEDCOM?
(00:54) Lisa: What is a GEDCOM?
(01:14) Gordon: GEDCOM is actually an acronym for:
GEnealogical Data COMmunication.
It’s a type of file with specific rules that allows digital family history products to exchange information. It’s been around so long that all the software companies can read and export it.
Say for example that you have a particular family tree program you’ve been working in but there are some features in another application that you like to try out. You want to try it out with a computer file that the program can read. All of the popular genealogy programs allows you to write a GEDCOM file and then you can read it in and review your information and add to it. That is what a GEDCOM is for.
It’s a specific file type that was works with most family history applications. It’s a text-based file, though it has special constraints to it. It was designed to be easily adaptable and compatible with importing and exporting. So, as long as the developers of both products adhere to GEDCOM specifications, you shouldn’t have a trouble downloading from one and uploading to the other.
Lisa: It sounds like each genealogy software database and website probably have their own proprietary file type, right? So, this is one everybody sort of agrees on that can extract the genealogy data set right. Is that right?
Gordon: Right, and there are differences between the proprietary program and GEDCOM. There are some products out there that only support GEDCOM. So that’s their proprietary format.
Why Use a GEDCOM?
(03:45) Lisa: So why should we use one a GEDCOM. When would we find ourselves wishing we had this universal file?
Gordon: Family history is more of a record keeping whether it’s photos and stories and genealogical data. People like to keep it and have control over it. So, GEDCOM is I like the word “personal”. You can personally control it. It’s just a .GED file, so any operating system can handle copying and emailing it. So, for personal control, preservation and sharing of genealogical data. It’s the most universally accepted format.
I would think for your backup purposes because it’s so universal, make sure that the program that you’re using has the ability to save your data in GEDCOM. Then you can decide whether you put it in your thumb drive or removable drive or you put it up in the cloud, you can decide how to preserve it. Think of it more as your personal file over this important information.
(05:31) Lisa: I like that idea. I’m probably not alone in that I once had somebody give me a little floppy disk and it had the whole family tree that this person had been working on. Unfortunately, it was a proprietary file, and it was a program that no longer exists. I’m helpless to be able to use it. So, a GEDCOME can really solve that issue.
Do All Family Tree Programs Support GEDCOM?
(06:00) You kind of touched on this, but I just want to just double check. Can all family tree programs and websites export the GEDCOM? Are you familiar with anything that don’t?
Gordon: I would say all of the popular programs and websites make it possible to import GEDCOM, and most of them allow for exports. There are some exceptions to that rule. If you’re going to spend your time using a program, look to see if it’s GEDCOM compatible.
To help even more so standardize the industry, the software providers commit to implementing the newest version of GEDCOM. Much of that is backward compatible. We presented those that have or will be planning to implement the newest version of GEDCOM at Rootstech. You can search at Rootstech for “GEDCOM” and see the videos of what’s been rolled out and what’s coming.
Who Owns and Controls GEDCOM?
(07:41) Lisa: Is there one particular group or authority or somebody who’s in charge of deciding what the GEDCOM is and how it works? Or is that a role that FamilySearch is playing?
Gordon: It is a role that Family Search has been playing. FamilySearch is the software development, education marketing, support arm of the department called The Family History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. So sometimes because of marketing reasons, people think that we’re different. Family Search is totally run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
From a historical standpoint, the original specification was created and released in 1984. All subsequent versions have been copyrighted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Now, in the last three years, as a like a product manager, I took on the responsibility for working on the new version, version 7 of GEDCOM. But it’s always been an effort of FamilySearch as the outreach arm for the Family History Department.
What we did differently in this last version is we solicited all the key players and software companies. It was much more of a collaborative effort to go through the changes, things to keep, things to just get rid of. It took about two years working with many people. Now the version is what is called a public GitHub repository. As we worked toward version 7, it was to prepare it for a starting point. The decision process is still a steering committee sponsored by FamilySearch, but the input and the communication on changes is open to all software developers. You can learn about all that because it’s hosted at GEDCOM.io. So GEDCOME.info is kind of like the general public, and GEDCOM.io is more for technical software developers.
(10:38) Lisa: What are some of the features of GEDCOM 7? What are some of the things that you consider when you’re continuing to develop the GEDCOM?
Gordon: The process that we worked on was, I think to eliminate ambiguity, there could be different software providers that would interpret the file specifications a little bit differently. We wanted to clean up the specifications so that there would be much more, not 100%, but a much better compatibility between the people that were reading it and writing it. So, we worked very tediously on eliminating the ambiguity.
I would think that the biggest thing is, it’s become more of a storage format of photos, and records and data. Let me read something, “FamilySearch GEDCOM version 7 incorporates the added ability to include photos, and other files when users download a FamilySearch GEDCOM 7 file from a supportive family tree product.”
Your local photos can be bundled in a special file that we called GEDZIP. It’s a GEDCOM file that is a zip package. That means that anybody that unzips that package will get the GEDCOM file and all the external files associated with it and have everything be readable. It’s a packaging technique to put everything together, which really adds to this idea of a personal preservation and sharing. Now you can package everything together and preserve it and share everything that’s important to you with others.
In addition to this zipped packaging capability, notes have been expanded for more versatile use and styling of text. When you add notes, whether it’s a relationship or a location, you can actually stylize those notes now and use bold and italic.
Many tools and sample files were created to help with self-testing. It’s based upon the Apache license, which is more of a technical slant on things, but to software developers, that means it’s an open software license. There’s a public GitHub repository that you go to github.com/familysearch so that you can request and watch ongoing changes in a more of a public environment, though Family Search is still the stewards and has the final say on decisions.
So that’s what’s new. It’s more open to the public. It’s been cleaned up with some important new features.
But backward compatibility for 90% of the GEDCOMs that are out there (and the last one was 5.5.1) is still possible. But it won’t go back to 3.0, 2.0. That’s where that’s where some of the incompatibilities are, is because people are using versions that are 20 years old. And things have changed a lot in the last 25 years. We have a clean, fresh start, and a new community working on continuous improvements. But there won’t be changes because the standards shouldn’t change much. This new version 7 is going to be pretty much the same for a while everybody gets on board.
Do GEDCOMs Include Image Files of Attached Records?
(15:21) Lisa: You mentioned photographs. Would that include image files? Would that include if we downloaded an image of a genealogical record which might be a .JPEG file? Would those come along with the GEDCOM?
Gordon: Yes, absolutely. All the elements of GEDCOM have definition of how to use them. And what’s called the multimedia link, the multimedia link means you can link to local files, JPEGs, PDFs, you know, whatever they are. And if you don’t want to put it all together, you can link to files that are in the cloud, and it will remember where they are. If you package them together in a GEDZIP file, and then you unpackage it, you’ll be able to access the local image files and the local records there.
So, this idea of putting it all together, I mean, bandwidth is much better than it used to be. But still, for people that have hundreds of thousands of images. This is not the best format for that. So they can work out a strategy taking into account the cloud service they use, and which photos they will keep locally on their computer. So, they can keep track of everything, both in the cloud and on their local drive. And that can all be referenced in this new version of GEDCOM.
Is There Data Loss When Exporting a GEDCOM?
(16:59) Lisa: Excellent.
So one of the questions I’ve heard from people is that they are concerned about loss data loss. If they’re importing or exporting, maybe going back and forth, is there a chance that you’re going to lose things or even introduce an error of some type?
Gordon: This is kind of the issue of the work on version 7. One of the biggest issues is not only new features, but to get a new standard to kind of clean the slate. If you get stuff into the new GEDCOM version 7 the likelihood of data losses is greatly reduced. So, we’re encouraging the adoption and use of GEDCOM 7 because it’s less likely to cause any data loss or errors.
Family Search and industry experts have worked for two years to remove ambiguities, simplify the definitions and samples in order to eliminate the possibility of data loss and errors when transferring between programs. In the long run, not only does it include more media, but the whole goal is to improve the consistency, the compatibility and minimize or even eliminate data loss. So, what you will start being seeing is the question “is GEDCOM 7 compatible?” Because GEDCOM 7, when we were working on something that was 20 years old, is going to be more compatible in the future. We have a body to watch out for it. Your data will migrate to the new version without data loss. But looking at down the road, staying with the version 7 or higher will assure a sure better preservation of what you have.
Learn More About GEDCOM at Rootstech
(19:17) Lisa: I think you mentioned or alluded to that there were some announcements at Rootstech 2022.
Gordon: Yes, go to the sessions and type in “GEDCOM” and you will get three opportunities. One is a session called GEDCOM 7 Launched and Rolling Strong. Another session will be FamilySearch GEDCOM 7 What’s Next? And the answer is teamwork.
There’s two pre-recorded videos about the What’s New in GEDCOM 7 and then how the industry’s going to join together in working on it in the future. In in one of the sessions, the first one, there actually is a slide that shows all the companies that have committed to it. But all the majority of the companies have said, both in the cloud and desktop and laptop, and some have said when they’re going to release it. And one company I think, is announcing their release at Rootstech of the new GEDCOM version 7.
Future Updates and Changes to GEDCOM
(20:44) Lisa: That’s great to see. Anything I didn’t ask you or that you think people should really be aware of as they move forwarding and keeping up to date with GEDCOM 7?
Gordon: Again, with a standard, we don’t want to change too much too fast, because they wanted to get solid as a new transfer format.
I think the big areas that we’re working on for future versions is related quite a bit to internationalization. There are probably 20 different calendaring systems that are different than what we do in the U.S. To be able to respect those different calendars and to understand the translation between calendars is a big part of internationalizing GEDCOM.
The other part related to that is that there are some places in the world where how they define relationships between people is not typical to either the US or Western Europe. And so we are working on major upgrades and encourage people to come join with us. With naming conventions we may think given name, surname, but in reality, there’s other relationships that get into the name. If we even go to Africa their name is the first name may go back 10 generations, so their name is a memorization of all those names. So, improving on names is an important effort, the structure and relationships.
Another improvement is places. We think hierarchal and certain jurisdictions, but over time, and in different areas of the world, how you organize places is different. We need to address that in the GEDCOM specification.
Sources and Citations need to be upgraded for the genealogical community. And so, we certainly invite not only software developers, but genealogists to join our effort to improve sources and citations.
One thing I’m really excited about is that we have a team that’s been working a year, and they’re probably working on it another year or two, on what we call hypothesis. This is so that you can share information without claiming it as a conclusion, and keep it separate from a conclusion. This encourages collaboration. So instead of arguing about I’m right, you’re wrong, we call it a hypothesis. Then we can have a discussion until there’s enough sources to prove it. This Hypothesis module I think is going to be really exciting. But that won’t be for a couple years or so until we actually release it.
Lisa: I think that’s a terrific idea because so often we are just battling with ourselves over what we think the answer is, and we want to track it while we’re doing it.
I’m curious: sometimes we go to a website, and you have to pick what language you speak. Perhaps if you’re searching for videos on YouTube you might say English. Is this something being considered? Is the goal no matter what that it’s only one type of file that serves every country or was there a consideration that you could select your country and then the GEDCOM would support your calendar and your geographic areas. I’m sure that was a discussion.
Gordon: Oh, absolutely. And, but what you’re talking about, just to be clear, is the specification to give all of the options and more to the software developer. The software developer can decide the language of the interface, and many of them are already doing this. So the actual presentation, if it’s Norwegian, or Danish, or whatever, it’s different according to the language that you place. What we’re looking according to your language of choice is that the orientations are names, relationships, and places jurisdictions, will be easy for the software developer to switch to by just changing that.
When we look at an international – how people look at information – it may be a different lens that they look through. So having the ability to give the software developers out of our future specs, to switch their interface, and switch around because they might be working in one part of the country because of their heritage, and then they might work in another and to be switched between it and to still have the data be the same, regardless of what national lens they’re looking through.
Lisa: It’s amazing that one little package contains so much and so much flexibility. That’s really terrific.
The Team Working on GEDCOM 7
(26:52) Gordon: I won’t drop names but in my immediate steering committee, that we meet with weekly, not only do I have three representations from within FamilySearch, but from the community, I like to call them doctors, they are doctors, they have their PhDs in computer science. Some are genealogists, they have their peers, one is even a linguistic professor. Another is an actual legal professional. It’s been wonderful to work with such experts, really, that are reasonable, and want to make things easy for the software developer. So, it’s quite a dilemma, instead of just making it right in the specification, but we’ve got to make it right and make it easier for the software developers to implement it. So that’s my thanks to all the people I’ve been able to work with.
With so many new records coming online, I’m going to focus today on collections that are new, or have had a substantial update. These records are from around the world, and offer excellent opportunities to expand your genealogical research.
Keep reading here at Genealogy Gems for all the latest new records.
New Record Collections at FamilySearch
New indexed record collections offer new hope for genealogists yearning to bust a brick wall in their family tree. FamilySearch has recently launched several noteworthy newgenealogical record collections. Some have substantial amounts of new records and some are just getting started. As always, they are free to access with an account. Here’s the latest:
This release constitutes the first substantial set of Greek record collections available on MyHeritage. All three collections have been indexed by MyHeritage and for the first time are now searchable in English, as well as in Greek. The total size of MyHeritage’s historical record database is now 12.2 billion records. This release positions MyHeritage as an invaluable genealogy resource for family history enthusiasts who have Greek roots.
“As the cradle of western civilization and a crossroads of continents and cultures, Greece is becoming a gem among MyHeritage’s historical record collections. The records in these collections are rich in detail and have pan-European, Balkan, and Mediterranean significance. The communities documented were shaped by Greek, Italian, French, and Russian influences, have been home to significant Catholic and Jewish communities, and represent some of the world’s most progressive systems of governance. These collections will prove valuable both to novice researchers and experienced genealogists,” said Russ Wilding, Chief Content Officer of MyHeritage.
The publication of these collections furthers MyHeritage’s commitment to providing new avenues for Greek family history research. In one of the company’s pro bono initiatives, MyHeritage Founder and CEO Gilad Japhet personally traced the descendants of a Jewish family that was hidden during World War II on the small island of Erikoussa, north of Corfu. The entire population of the island collectively gave refuge to the family, and saved it from death. His genealogical detective work, combined with MyHeritage’s extensive global database of historical records, culminated in recognition for the courageous people of Erikoussa, who were presented with the House of Life award by the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. This was depicted in the books ‘When the Cypress Whispers’ and ‘Something Beautiful Happened’ by Yvette Manessis Corporon, whose grandmother was among those who saved the Jewish family on Erikoussa.
Japhet utilized his hands-on experience in Greek research to develop the enhanced method by which MyHeritage now handles Greek surnames in the new collections. In Greece, a woman’s last name is the genitive form of her father’s surname, or when she marries, of her husband’s surname. The new Greek collections on MyHeritage have been made gender-agnostic so that searches and matches will work to the fullest extent. For example, a search for the Jewish surname “Velleli” in the new collections on MyHeritage will also locate people named “Vellelis”. It is also possible to find these surnames by searching for “Belleli”, because the Greek letter beta is pronounced like the English letter V, but in some countries this distinction has been lost and Greek surnames are sometimes pronounced with the letter B, the way they are written in modern English. MyHeritage’s Global Name Translation Technology further ensures that when searching on MyHeritage in other languages, such as Hebrew and Russian, the results will also include names in the new Greek collections. No other major genealogy company has these Greek record collections, nor such sophisticated algorithms customized for Greek genealogy research.
The Greece Electoral Rolls (1863–1924) consist of 1,006,594 records and provide nationwide coverage of males ages 21 and up who were eligible to vote. They list the voter’s given name, surname, father’s name, age, and occupation. Each record includes the individual’s name in Greek, and a Latinized transliteration of the name that follows the standard adopted by the Greek government. MyHeritage translated many of the occupations from Greek to English and expanded many given names, which are often abbreviated in the original records. This new collection includes scans of the original documents and is the most extensive index of Greek electoral rolls currently available anywhere.
The Corfu Vital Records (1841–1932) consist of 646,807 birth, marriage, and death records. The records were collected by the civil authorities in Corfu and document the life events of all residents of the island regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Birth records from this collection may contain the child’s given name and surname, birthdate and place of birth, name and age of both parents, and the given names of the child’s grandfathers. A marriage record from this collection may include the date of marriage, groom’s given name and surname, age, place of birth, residence, and his father’s name. Similar information is recorded about the bride and her father. Death records in this collection may include the name of the deceased, date of death, age at death, place of birth, residence, and parents’ names. The indexed collection of Corfu Vital Records includes scans of the original documents and is available exclusively on MyHeritage.
The Sparta Marriages collection (1835–1935) consists of 179,411 records which include images of the couple’s marriage license and their listing in the marriage register.The records in this collection list the full names of the bride and groom, the date of marriage, their fathers’ names, the birthplace of the bride and groom, and occasionally the names of witnesses to the marriage. The images in this collection were photographed, digitized, and indexed by MyHeritage from the original paper documents, in cooperation with the Metropolis of Monemvasia and Sparta.
The new collections are available on SuperSearch™, MyHeritage’s search engine. Searching the Greek record collections is free. A subscription is required to view the full records and to access Record Matches. Click here to start a 14-day free trial at MyHeritage.
Alabama, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, Church Records, 1837-1970 From Ancestry: “This collection includes baptism, marriage, and burial records from the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama between the years of 1837 and 1970. Established in 1830, the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama is comprised of 92 congregations and covers all of Alabama, with the exception of the very southern portion of the state.” Click here to search this collection.
Oregon, State Marriages, 1906-1966 The original data comes from the Oregon State Archives. Oregon, Marriage Records, 1906-1910, 1946-1966. Salem, Oregon. Click here to search this collection
Oregon, State Births, 1842-1917 These birth certificates will typically include the following information:
U.S., Pennsylvania, Grand Army of the Republic Membership Records, 1865-1936 These records are made available through a partnership with FamilySearch. The describe the collection as follows: “Index and images of membership records of the Pennsylvania Department Grand Army of the Republic that cover from the years 1865-1936. An organization of Union army and navy veterans of the Civil War. The collection consists of registers, lists, minute, account and descriptive books of local post (chapters) The descriptive books include town of residence, military unit, date of enlistment,date of discharge, age and birthplace. The collection was acquired from the Pennsylvania State Archives.” Click here to search the collection.
WEB: Washington, Various County Census Records, 1850-1914 The original data for this collection comes from the Washington State Archives – Digital Archives. Census Records. Cheney, Washington, United States: Washington State Archives – Digital Archives. Click here to search the collection.
Finland, WWII Military Casualties, 1939-1945 In this collection you will find details on Finnish soldiers killed during World War II. From Ancestry: “From the start of the war until 1944, Finland was involved in battles with the Soviet Union and from 1944-1945, Nazi Germany. Altogether, nearly 95,000 Finnish soldiers were killed or declared missing in action.” The National Archives of Finland created these indexes. They are in Finnish, reflecting the original source material. Click here to search this collection
Germany, Military Killed in Action, 1939-1948 Notes about this collection from Ancestry: “This collection is searchable using the search form, which among other things allows you to search by Last Name, First Name, Birth Date, Birthplace, Date of Death and Place of Death. Under “Browse this collection,” you can select the Box Number Range and Box Number of the cards desired.” Click here to search the collection.
German Concentration Camp Records, 1946-1958 These records include copies of German records including camp records, transport lists, and medical data cards. The camp records include inmate cards, death lists, and strength reports. Click here to search this collection
New York, Executive Orders for Commutations, Pardons, Restorations, Clemency and Respites, 1845-1931
39,246 new records have been added to this collection of executive clemency application ledgers and correspondence.
According to Ancestry: “Each record includes the felon’s name, crime, date and county of conviction, sentence, and prison. Signatures on the records can include the governor, secretary of state, and/or deputy secretary of state.” Click here to search the collection.
North Dakota, Select County Marriage Records, 1872-2017
30,266 new records were added for the following counties in Washington State: Adams, Cavalier, Hettinger, McIntosh, Nelson, and Pierce.
Search Tips from Ancestry:
This collection includes images of indexes as well as the actual marriage records. If you’re having trouble finding your ancestor through the search, try browsing the index for the county in which they lived and use that information to locate them in the actual records.
Don’t overlook the possibility that your ancestor may have been married in a nearby county that was more convenient to them, or where other family members lived.
Tennessee, Death Records, 1908-1965
This is a significant update with 1,019,533 new records added covering 1959-1965. Be aware that, according to Ancestry, the forms used for reporting deaths 1908-1912 contain far less information than those used from 1914 forward. “No death records were recorded by the State of Tennessee in 1913 due to a change in the state law requiring vital records registration.”
Join me for Elevenses with Lisa, the online video series where we take a break, visit and learn. In the episode below I share viewers’ family history displays, answer your questions about my genealogy organization method, and show you how I file my genealogy digital files. Click here for the episode show notes.
Rylee says she’s grateful to have found the podcast and she shares a story of genealogical discovery that she hopes will inspire others. Rylee asks “How do I find sources for these people? I have searched all over ancestry and Family Search and have had no luck again. I really want to believe that the people I have as Adam’s parents and siblings all the way through his 2nd great-grandparents (paternal) are truly his family but I need to get more information. Where can I go for help with German records and where can I continue my search?”
Lisa’s comments: You’re absolutely right, what you found are just hints. It sounds like it’s time for you to move on from the “Genealogy Giants” (Ancestry, FamilySearch, etc.) and into German records websites, libraries, and archives to find real sources that nail down the family tree.
In a way, today marks the 175th birthday of the World Wide Web. Only it was electro-mechanical, not digital. On this date in 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse activated the first telegraph line, sending a dots-and-dashes code message from the U.S. Capitol building to a receiver in Baltimore.
By the late 1850s, the first telegraph cable had been laid across the Atlantic Ocean, and in 1861, the telegraph spanned the continental United States. Over the ensuing decades, the wires wrapped around the world.
From the 1844 demonstration, telecommunications today has grown into a half-trillion dollar a year industry, and employs more than 1 million workers in over 59,000 industry establishments.
You can find more facts about America from the U.S. Census Bureau online at www.census.gov.
Joseph Nathan Kane, Kane’s Famous First Facts, Fifth Edition, H.W. Wilson Co., New York, NY, 1997, #7692.
Genealogy Giants MyHeritage and Ancestry have both added 3 Norway Census collections to their databases, totaling millions of new records. If you have Norwegian origins, these census documents contain valuable details about your ancestors that have been largely...