Monday, November 1, 2010

Mailbox Monday: GEDCOM

Dear Ancestry Insider,

Hi there, I'm part of the GEDCOM-L mailing list and it was raised 2 days ago whether anyone was working on getting GEDCOM 6.0 "brought to the table" so to speak or at least working on some kind of update to the GEDCOM standard. I myself would love to be involved in such work but I know that such a project would go far beyond the capabilities of one person. Do you know if ancestry or familysearch are working on anything? Or possibly someone else has suggested working on something new.

I look forward to your answer,

all the best,
Ben Clark

Dear Ben,

Your query is quite timely. At the FamilySearch Blogger Day earlier this month the question of GEDCOM came up. Ron Tanner told us that FamilySearch is not working on any updates to GEDCOM.

There was no small dissatisfaction among attendees regarding GEDCOM’s deficiencies. It has not been updated since way back when FamilySearch barely gave source citations any attention. It does not support the best of breed citations supported by FamilySearch’s competitors. Instead, it relies on a single text field, cremating citations that are forced through it.

GEDCOM also does not support transfer of artifacts, images, and attached documents, all of which are misrouted to the great lost-luggage warehouse in the cloud.

Gordon Clarke fielded follow-up questions. My notes are lacking here, but I believe he said that the new FamilySearch Tree web service transfers tree data and supersedes GEDCOM. While I can’t remember if he said he owned GEDCOM, I recommend you direct further questions to him.

-- The Insider


  1. This is irritating.

    1) I have no issue with FS deciding that they will not update GEDCOM providing that they then set the standard free to allow others to do the update. I have tried in the UK to suggest to the Society of Genealogists (probably our leading such body) that they might care to take a role in updating GEDCOM but the typical response is - "It belongs to FS so no-one else can do anything without their agreement".

    2) If they were to set it free and no-one picked it up, well, that would also be annoying but at least FS would have done the decent thing.

    3) Based on my (limited) knowledge of the new FS Tree web service, how on earth anyone can imagine that it supersedes GEDCOM, I can't imagine. Surely it's for a completely different purpose? GEDCOM is a fairly open transfer mechanism (primarily) and there is no way I'm going to load my data into someone's (closed?) web service in order to send a decently detailed file to someone else.

  2. Do I really want to get into this controversy? Well, maybe.

  3. The problem is that it requires resources to either update GEDCOM or replace it. An inadequate mechanism for transferring data from one program to another, as GEDCOM is now, is to the benefit of genealogy database software vendors. It deters users from moving to another program. The only program that offers an alternative to GEDCOM does so only for transferring data INTO the program, not out of it. Let's brainstorm a solution.

  4. For some background on what Gordon Clarke said regarding GEDCOM at the FamilySearch Bloggers Day Event see my blog entry:

  5. There's no doubt this is good for software vendors in the short term. Long term I think they'd really benefit from not having to reinvent the wheel every few years. Also, if they have any confidence in their products wouldn't they see GEDCOM as a potential way to get new customers?

    Whatever the case, the losers here are us: the ones who are trapped by our family tree software.

  6. I should mention that my blog entry references a soon-to-be-announced Build a BetterGEDCOM wiki for development among all interested parties.

  7. I have said at many conferences that as FamilySearch APIs mature they could be considered by the industry as a new standard for exchanging genealogical information. FamilySearch is not yet ready to promote the API schemas as standards to be used by everyone.

    Gordon Clarke
    FamilySearch Software Community Manager

  8. Brother Clarke,

    In the meantime while we wait for the FamilySearch APIs to reach that critical mass, why doesn't the Church just release the GEDCOM format to the open source community and let it serve as the standard with some sorely needed upgrades to allow for digital file inclusion? Why the lack of clear, concise and honest communication on the hesitancy to release the GEDCOM format?

    It is so frustrating that you lock everyone into this world of non-transferability after we have diligently created strong and well-documented Books of Remembrance to pass on.

  9. I'm not sure what you mean by "citations ... relies on a single text field".

    If you are familiar with the spec, GEDCOM has an elaborate structure to represent source citations.

    A citation is denoted by a SOUR record, which cross-references to a Master Source, includes a PAGE record, EVEN referring to the event, ROLE denoting the person's role in the event, DATE recorded, TEXT transcription of the citation text, QUAY quality of assessment, a Multimedia link, and additional NOTEs.

    The SOURce master record includes an EVEN, DATE and PLAC tag, AGNC responsible agency, AUTHor, TITLe, ABBReviation, PUBLication facts, TEXT of source again, REPOsitory citation (many more tags), another Multimedia link, NOTEs, and REFN reference number.

    It ain't perfect, but I have yet to see a program take advantage of the full power of GEDCOM. The biggest problem with GEDCOM is that only a few developers have ever taken the time to read the spec and implement properly.

    As a matter of fact, the SOUR master includes a cross-reference to NOTE record. The NOTE record in turn includes a reference to a SOURce. This leads to the possibility of recursive hierarchies that could theoretically represent the most complex source citation situation. No program has ever scratched the surface of this construct.

    (BTW the CAPTCHA doesn't work in Firefox).

  10. Hi, I just want to point out again the "Build A BetterGEDCOM" effort that Myrtle announced further up. The page is at
    There are a lot of good discussions going on touching all the issues mentioned here, and a lot of good work is being done.


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