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How do I read a GEDCOM?

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You often see "How do I read a GEDCOM?" on beginner forum pages. The short answer is that you don't; you let your program read it for you. The rest of this page is the long answer. It has some guidelines for importing a GEDCOM. If all you want to do is look at a GEDCOM, open Word, select "All files (*.*)" in the "Files of type" box, and open it up.

To review, suppose your great-grandfather was a dead end for you. Now suppose our great-grandfathers were brothers, and I had researched the line back six generations. You would write to me. I would extract our mutual great-grandfathers, all of their siblings, and all of their ancestors as a GEDCOM and send it to you.

You would import the GEDCOM into a temporary place. On my machine, it takes about a minute per thousand names, depending on how many facts it has, to import a GEDCOM. This is faster than I can type. Then you would look at my data.

At best, you might find that I had exact birth, marriage and death dates for each individual, plus a 3,000-word biography, with notes on the historical events of the time. In this best of all possible GEDCOM worlds, you'd find a town, county and state for each event, and, of course, three independent citations for each fact. This would save you roughly 45 years of research.

At worst, you might find that I had copied from any web site I found, added even more questionable data from WFT CD's, given estimates that didn't make sense, and neglected to cite any sources. In this case, since you imported my GEDCOM into a temporary data base, you haven't contaminated your main database. You would just delete the temporary database and keep searching.

If you liked my GEDCOM, you would change my standards to fit yours, then export a new GEDCOM to your hard drive from the new database and import it into your main database. (The third page in this series discusses standards in detail.)

Let's get specific. First, how do you create a new, temporary place to put the data in a GEDCOM? If you use Family Tree Maker (FTM), select File, New Family File and give it a name like Temp. If you use Family Origins for Windows (FOW) or Roots Magic, select New, Data Base and give it a name like Temp. If you use another program, the procedure is the same even though the names may be a little different. Click on Help in your genealogy program and follow the instructions.

Next you import it. Importing here has nothing to do with cocoa from Africa or coffee from Columbia; it just means to transfer the data from the GEDCOM file to the new file you created.

If you use FOW, you click on File, GEDCOM, Import. A window pops up asking you to select the file you want to import.

If you use FTM, you click on File, Append/merge Family File. A window pops up with several file types. Select "GEDCOM", then select the file.

If you use another program, again, the procedure is similar and you should click on Help. The exact buttons you push should be explained in your program's help, under GEDCOM.

Note that not all genealogy programs recognize all GEDCOM tags. FOW, for instance, has problems with CAUS. (Cause of death). Whenever I get a GEDCOM from an FTM user, I have to play with it to make it work. After you import SMITH.GED into a file, you'll find a SMITH.LST file in the same directory. It will have your errors, if there were any. I usually cope with the minor errors through my genealogy program, not by correcting the GEDCOM. Open the GEDCOM with Word, find the tag your program didn't like, scroll up to the 0 INDI tag to see who it was for, and add the data to the individual. You can make odd facts into a note. For instance, if your program won't accept
"2 CAUS Acute lead poisoning",
enter "Shot while stealing a horse" in the individual's note.

Now you look over the data. Run the problem report, if your program has one. See if the GEDCOM has reasonable sources. Change the place names, if you use a different standard than the person who sent you the GEDCOM. Change the other standards, if needed. (The third page in this series is all about standards.) You want to assure yourself the data is accurate and in the form you use. This can take three weeks, if your standards are high and the person who sent you the data has none. Finally, export the file into a second GEDCOM. Then back up your main file, back up your main file up a second time on a different diskette, and import the second GEDCOM into your main file. After you import the second GEDCOM, look to see if you have duplicates. If you do, use your program's Merge utility for them.

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This page updated: June 21, 2014