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Essential Access: a Practical Guide

Introduction to databases

In this section, we'll explore what databases are, how you might have relational data that works best in a database, and what options there are for creating a database.

What is a database?

Databases are a method for storing data in a structured way on a computer, to make it easier to store, search, and work with that data.

Data is typically stored in tables in a database. You can visualise each table as having columns, or fields, which hold particular categories of data (e.g. first name), and rows, or records, which hold all of the information about a particular thing (e.g. a customer).

With this data, you can run queries, which are basically advanced searches that allow you to sort and filter data. These searches can be saved so you can keep working with the data that fits those criteria, without making unnecessary copies of your data.

Databases are good for working with relational data, which is data where the information in different tables link together in particular ways. Storing information as relational data with these relationships saved in the computer makes it easier to work with and removes the need for data duplication across tables.

Relational data

Sometimes a single table of rows and columns is not enough to suitably store your data. The fields needed belong to separate categories and there would have to be duplication or other data issues if you tried to put it all into one table.

An example would be storing the information about people and research projects they are involved in. There will need to be fields of data about the people, and also fields of data about the projects. People can be involved in many projects, and one project might have many people involved.

To store this data, we would create separate tables, one for the people and one for the projects, and then express how these are connected. This shows the relationships in the data, which is why it is called relational data.

An example of relational data, in which four people have defined connections to six different projects
Our relational data example, mapping out the connections between people and projects. Larger version.

Databases are a good way to store relational data, as they can allow you to store and interrogate relational data, taking into account the relationships between the tables of data. You can build similar things in a spreadsheet, but this can be more complex to set up and manage.

Options for using databases

If you decide that your data needs a relational structure and needs to be in a database, there are various options you might use.

  • Microsoft Access is a user-friendly way to create and work with databases, as it has a clear user inferface that is familiar to people who have used other Microsoft Office applications and doesn't require you to write commands in a coding language like SQL. You can import and export data in a variety of formats, including from a spreadsheet.
    However, Access is only available on Windows PCs and Access databases aren't suitable for the web.
  • Other database tools allow you to create and manage databases by writing commands in Structured Query Language, or SQL. For example, MySQL is an open source database service and it is possible to request a new MySQL database from the University's IT Services. However, to use these, you would need to learn how to write SQL commands to work with the database.

There are many other database tools out there, or you could even be clever with spreadsheets to create something that approximates a database, depending on the scale of what you need. If you need help deciding how to store and work with your data, get in touch with itsupport@york.ac.uk

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