Readers who have been following this series will know that I believe genealogy apps should support GEDCOM 5.5.1. There are two versions of GEDCOM (GEnealogical Data Communication) reported in GEDCOM files by most genealogy software today: versions 5.5 and 5.5.1. The last “official” version dated 1996 from the Family History Department (today known as FamilySearch) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was 5.5, but they released a revision numbered 5.5.1 in 1999. Unfortunately, that version is stamped “DRAFT,” and FamilySearch never removed the “draft” designation. Nonetheless, 5.5.1 is the de facto current version of GEDCOM, discounting 5.6 (see note below). The majority of apps label their GEDCOMs as version 5.5, but even apps producing GEDCOMs labelled 5.5 use at least one or two features of 5.5.1 (see Louis Kessler’s presentation, “Reading Wrong GEDCOM Right” at the preceding link). As GEDCOM and genealogy software expert Tamura Jones has written many times, 5.5.1 is the de facto standard; apps should be able to import both 5.5 and 5.5.1 and default to the latter when exporting. The reasons are quite simple:
- First and foremost, the UTF-8 character encoding, which enables encoding of most written characters, was not available until GEDCOM 5.5.1, so if an app is to export a GEDCOM with UTF-8, it must label its GEDCOMs as 5.5.1. GEDCOM 5.5 allowed Unicode, but in 1996, “Unicode” would have referred to UTF-16, not both UTF-16 and UTF-8. UTF-8 barely existed in 1995, having been presented only in 1993. UTF-8 wasn’t widely adopted until much later, and the Family History Department certainly was not an early adopter. UTF-8 wasn’t even included in the Unicode Standard until Unicode 3.0 published in 2000. So GEDCOM 5.5 could not have referred to UTF-8.
- GEDCOM 5.5 had two ways of including multimedia: an embedded form using a binary object (called a blob) and a linked form including the full path and name of the multimedia file; notably, the linked form could not use cross-references, meaning every time a multimedia object was referenced, the complete file information, including title and format, had to be repeated. As far as I know, only two apps can currently embed binary objects in GEDCOMs, Family Historian 6 and Ancestral Quest 14; Ancestral Quest cannot read Family Historian blobs, so there is a problem with compatibility. In any event, GEDCOM 5.5.1 eliminated the embedded form, leaving only the linked form. It also changed the structure of multimedia records to allow cross-references. So if an app is to export a GEDCOM with multimedia cross-references and file links, it must use GEDCOM 5.5.1 and label the file accordingly.
- In 1995, the World Wide Web was still in its infancy, so it’s not surprising that GEDCOM 5.5 doesn’t even contain tags for email or web addresses. GEDCOM 5.5.1 added tags for these, as well as fax number and latitude and longitude coordinates and a few other things. For apps to use these standard tags, they must use GEDCOM 5.5.1 and label their files accordingly; otherwise, they must use custom tags that may not be recognized by other apps.
- As Tamura Jones explains, GEDCOM 5.5.1 is not a draft, because FamilySearch hasn’t treated it as such since at least 16 Feb 2000: “For at least the near future, the Family History Department [FamilySearch] is using The GEDCOM Standard version 5.5.1.”
All GEDCOM files have a GEDCOM version tag so that the apps that process them can interpret them correctly, since there are differences in structure among the various versions. Genealogy apps that use any of the features listed above must offer GEDCOM 5.5.1 export, and as far as I know, all currently developed apps offer the UTF-8 character encoding. Therefore, all apps must offer 5.5.1. All apps must be able to correctly import 5.5.1 GEDCOMs, as well, since many apps export files labelled version 5.5.1.
Apps that fail to import and export GEDCOM 5.5.1 files correctly are doing their users a disservice, since at least some data will be lost, altered, or stored in a hard-to-reach location. People who use genealogy apps entrust their hard-earned information to those apps, and they don’t want to have to worry about their information when exchanging it with other people, uploading it to websites, or changing applications. App developers owe it to them to release apps that at least comply with the two most commonly used standards. As far as I’m concerned, apps that don’t support GEDCOM 5.5.1 deserve a “Fail” on a pass-fail test, and I do not recommend them. So far I’ve test how well 14 desktop and web apps handle GEDCOM, with more tests to come. Six of those apps can at least label their GEDCOMs as version 5.5.1: Family Tree Maker 2014.1 (Windows)/3.1 (Mac), GEDitCOM II, Gramps 4, Legacy Family Tree 8, MacFamilyTree 7, and RootsMagic 7. That means eight of them fail outright: Ancestral Quest 14, Ancestry.com Family Trees, Brother’s Keeper 7, Family Historian 6, Family Tree Builder 7, Heredis 2015, iFamily for Mac, and Reunion 11. Fig 1 summarizes the results. All of these apps offer UTF-8 as an option; some of them offer tags like EMAIL and FAX; others use GEDCOM 5.5.1 multimedia record structures. If any of these features are in an exported GEDCOM labelled 5.5, then, as Tamura Jones says, they’re lying about it, or the third digit in the version number got truncated. For more details about how well apps comply with the GEDCOM standard, see the respective reports below and my GEDCOM Crosswalk table.
Is GEDCOM 5.5.1 perfect? Of course not; it contains errors, inconsistencies, and contradictions that FamilySearch never corrected before they abandoned it. But there are solutions for these problems based on logic and common sense. For developers who may not be aware, Tamura Jones has published several articles listing best practices for GEDCOM readers, writers, and validators (that covers all apps that purport to handle GEDCOM). Some of these best practices address the problems in the GEDCOM standards, and as a whole they are good practices to follow.
I don’t mean to frighten users of the nine failing apps I named above; most of them just need to make minor changes. But users should be concerned about the integrity of their data—as Ben has pointed out before on this blog, your data are at risk. At a minimum, you should avoid using the fields highlighted in red or yellow for those apps in the crosswalk table, and if possible, copy existing data to other fields. You definitely should demand that the app developers support GEDCOM 5.5.1 and fix the compliance issues that I identified (there may be others). For your convenience, I’ve listed their support contacts below. I’ve contacted all of them about my findings; some have responded, but some haven’t. Some gave flimsy excuses for not supporting 5.5.1, some ignored the issue, and some committed to supporting it (including Family Tree Maker). Some said they would support it if there was a demand for it, so let’s demand it.
Genealogy Application Support Contacts
Ancestral Quest: support [at] ancquest.com
Ancestry.com: support [at] ancestry.com
Brother’s Keeper: Brothers_Keeper [at] msn.com
Family Historian: support [at] family-historian.co.uk
Family Tree Builder: support [at] myheritage.com
Family Tree Maker: http://www.mackiev.com/familytreemaker/ftm3/ftm_feedback.html?type=bugreport&ext=yes
GEDitCOM: support [at] geditcom.com
Gramps: https://gramps-project.org/bugs/my_view_page.php (registration required)
Heredis: http://www.heredis.com/en/forums/viewforum.php?f=6 (registration required)
iFamily: support [at] ifamilyformac.com
Legacy Family Tree: support [at] legacy.com
MacFamilyTree: macfamilytree [at] syniumsoftware.com
Reunion: help [at] leisterpro.com
RootsMagic: support [at] rootsmagic.com
The Complete Genealogy Products: http://www.tcgr.bufton.org/tcgpsupp.htm
Note: GEDCOM 5.6 was essentially 5.5.1 with the addition of an XML-based structure. It wasn’t even a publicly released draft, as 5.5.1 was. Although the document was dated 2000, it wasn’t leaked to the public until 2011. There was also a GEDCOM replacement based completely on XML, inappropriately named GEDCOM 6, which never proceeded past the beta stage and was not widely adopted. Since 5.6 added little of value other than the XML structure, and GEDCOM XML was completely based on XML and therefore totally different from previous versions, there is little to be gained by apps implementing either of these standards. Apps have a hard enough time complying with 5.5.1—that should be enough until a replacement is adopted by all app developers.
Acknowledgment: Tamura Jones reviewed an earlier draft of this article and made substantive corrections and suggestions. Any errors, however, my own, which I will gladly correct if they are pointed out.
20 Apr 2016: Removed the “beta” designation from Family Tree Maker.
29 Apr 2016: Changed GEDitCOM II from 5.5 to 5.5.1 due to its ability to change the GEDCOM version from within the app.