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Sharing Family Records Information

by Joseph Vernon Leavitt

1.- What is a GEDCOM file? 

    a.-   It is a file format, developed by the Family History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to provide a flexible and uniform format for exchanging computerized genealogical data. GEDCOM is an acronym for GEnealogical Data COMmunication. A GEDCOM filename ends with the extension of  *.ged (like smith.ged).  For a little further explanation, see queston 3 below.

    b.-   How do I open a GEDCOM file?  If you are using PAF (See footnote 1) v.5.2 (other programs have similar functions), you click on the "File" pulldown menu, and select "New." Assign a name for your new (empty) data file. Now that you have a new database, you are ready to add people to it. If you type in a few individuals or families at this point, they will be assigned the first "RIN" (See footnote 2) numbers by the program. Now, with your new (temporary) database open, go again to the  File  pull down menu, and select  Import.  You will get a window which asks for the location of the gedcom file. If the file is on a diskette, put it in drive A, and click on the little down pointing triangle (arrow) near the top of the  Import Gedcom File  window, and select drive A. The names of gedcom files on that disk will then be shown. Select one, and click  Import. 

         Now it's just a matter of following the program prompts to finish the import process. The family records information that was in the gedcom file is read, and then put into a format that your own particular genealogy program can use to display the data. If you had already added some individuals, they will still be there, but not connected to the new information.

2.- You use the terms  data,   file,  and  program,  seemingly the same way. What's the difference? 

    a.-    When I say  program,  I usually mean  computer program.  That is just a set of instructions that the computer can use to accomplish application tasks. Genealogy programs are application programs that help us organize, preserve, and share our family records information.

    b.-    When I say  data,  I am usually referring to the information that the computer program acts on to produce some kind of output. The output could be a display of the  data,  a printed report, or a source for calculations, et cetera.

    c.-     When I say  file,  I usually mean a collection of any kind of information that is stored under one name on the computer storage device. That could be a program  file,  or a data  file,  or an image  file,  et cetera.

3.- Why do we need gedcom files? 

    a.-    (Short answer): For sharing data files between programs, and for importing or exporting family records information.

    b.-    (Long answer): In the first phases of genealogy program development, it was, of course, realized that you can't just copy one file on top of another, since when you do that it erases the first one. So there needed to be a way to import data into it without affecting the individuals already there.

         To solve that problem, the program developers came up with the awful and mysterious sounding name of GEDCOM file. The term GEDCOM was coined as an acronym for "Genealogical Data Communications." A standard format (See Footnote 3) was developed for this kind of file, so it could be used to import data even if it was originally exported from a different brand of genealogy program. You can always tell if a file is in the gedcom format, because it will have the three-letter extension of ".ged". Examples: myfamily.ged, friend.ged, surname.ged, cousin.ged.

         In the earlier PAF programs, you had to know to use the shell program called PAF.EXE. On the starting menu there was an option called Genealogical Information Exchange (GIE.EXE). Selecting this gave you an option called GEDCOM. Selecting this, gave you options to create a gedcom file (Export), or to add all or part of a gedcom file to your records (Import). Like so many other things, if you know how to do it, it's easy, but this seems complicated to most people. I've found this to be the most difficult process to teach others. It does seem easier to grasp when using a Windows-based program

4.- How can I tell what's in the gedcom before I add it to my own records?   Do I have a choice?

        Most often, when you receive a gedcom file from someone, you don't know how much of it, if any, you may want to add to your own data file. That's why you ALWAYS start by importing it into a new (empty) one ( File  --  New ). Let's say you have done that, and looking at the new data, you see some parts that are lacking in your own data. You are now in a position to export what you want out of the new, temporary database, so that you can then import it into your own family records

5.- I want to make a file to share with others, but I want to keep what I have, just like it is.   How do I do that?

        In most genealogy programs, there is an option to export all or part of the data. After selecting whatever export option the program offers, it will allow you to select the part you want to extract, so you can later add it to your own data, or send it to others. The process doesn't change the data at all in the file you are exporting from. It doesn't carve out a piece and leave an empty hole there. It merely makes a copy of it in the so called gedcom file format, for later use.

         Likewise, when you import from a gedcom file into your own family records database, the information is not connected in any way to the individuals originally there. They are all still just like they were, and the new information can be seen by using the name index. Usually you will want to make a connection (merge) between the individuals in the original data and those just imported.

6.- How do I connect the new information with that which was there already? 

        An easy way to get the two trees connected is to find a person you know is common to both trees and bring up the list of all individuals in the file. Make sure it is sorting by name, and you will see two instances of the same person listed (a duplicate person). Make a note of the two RIN numbers, go to the "Match/Merge" feature of the program, and merge these two individuals.

         There is more yet to teach about this process, but let me just refer you to the help features of your particular genealogy program.

         It should be clear now, that you shouldn't extract so much out of the temporary data that you have to do a lot of unnecessary merging when you add (Import) it to your own family file. Whenever this happens, you may work feverishly for hours, and perhaps end up with a damaged file. At that point it is hoped you had done as the program prompted, advising you to make a backup of your data before proceeding.

7.-  How do I attach a file to an email message? 

    To attach a file to an outgoing email message (Bare-bones explanation):

      a.-    In the message composition window, click and hold Attach and then choose File.

      b.-    Select the file you want to attach and click Open.  The file appears in the attachments list.

    For a more detailed explanation (for Outlook Express) see this link 

8.-  Couldn't I just make a backup of my data and send that to you? 

     a.-    (Short answer):  Yes

     b.-    (Long answer):  A backup file would be in the format of the program that made the backup.  Our being able to use it would depend on our having a copy of that particular program, so as to be able to restore it to that data format.  Personal Note: Even though I prefer the Legacy Family Tree program, I have other programs also to use for this purpose.  This process becomes unnecessary if a gedcom (export) file is made instead, but we here at WALF can handle a file that was made in almost any format.

Footnote: 1   Personal Ancestral File (Free program, which you can download HERE)

Footnote: 2   Record Index Number

Footnote: 3  There are different levels of  Standard Gedcom Formats.    Until recently, the format most prevalent in Windows- based programs was GEDCOM 5.5.   New standards become necessary to accommodate new features added to genealogy programs, such as multimedia and extra input fields, not included in earlier programs.


This page last updated on June 24th, 2003