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September 25. 2005
If you show me your GEDCOM, I'll show you mine.
by - Ralph Bloch

While attending things genealogical, sooner or later you will trip over the term "GEDCOM" or "GEDCOM file". If you are curious about it, you came to the right place!

There are two likely contexts where you might have heard about GEDCOM:

  1. Somebody wanted to send you a family tree or have you send him yours;

  2. When trying to choose a genealogical software program, the ability to import and export GEDCOM files is a feature mentioned.
Books and other documents have a fairly linear structure. After the front matter comes a table of contents, an introduction, maybe a prologue followed by chapters one to twenty (or so). There might be an epilogue, some appendices and possibly even an index. Oh, I forgot the hardcover in front and back. The story in the book doesn't necessarily have to follow this simple structure. It might weave back and forth in time and hither and yonder in space. But always, one letter follows another, word after word, one sentence comes after each other and the same is true for the chapters.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the elements of a family tree. Yes, parents are born before their offspring; but that is just about the only predictable feature of a family tree. Cousins may marry cousins: Uncles may marry their nieces. Some people have more than one spouse. Fathers may be unknown. And more often than not, the same person may appear in more than one place in a family tree. So family trees don't have an inherently linear structure.

The GEDCOM file format has been developed by the Family and Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to provide a flexible, uniform, linear format for exchanging computerized genealogical data. The version currently in common use dates back to 1996. If you are sufficiently ambitious to try to understand GEDCOM, you can download the specifications. There is actually a more modern version, so called GEDCOM XML 6.0. It will gradually supersede classical GEDCOM files.

In fact, unless you want to start developing your own genealogical software, you don't have to bother with the nitty-gritty of GEDCOM format specifications. But since GEDCOM files can be read with any standard text editor it is good to know that a GEDCOM file has several sections: the two of primary interest to you are the "I" or individual section, where each individual in the family tree is listed and given a specific integer number. The second important section is the "F" or family section, where all meaningful family units, consisting of at least a couple or a parent and a child, are listed and numbered. Extensive cross-referencing allows a family tree to be traversed in any logical sequence. Besides the "I" and "F" section there are other sections of primary interest to researchers.

Good genealogical software allows reading from and writing to GEDCOM files. Either the whole family tree or specific sections may be imported or exported.

Various GEDCOM software utilities are available on the internet either for free or for a price.

Now that you know about GEDCOM files and format, you are able to be pretty blasť when conversing with fellow genealogists.

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