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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.

You can use separate sheets on a spreadsheet to store this data, but this isn't the best solution, as it doesn't make it easy to express those relationships in a way the computer understands, especially not in a quick, user friendly way. Instead, databases are better for storing relational data, as they can allow you to store and interrogate relational data, taking into account the relationships between the tables of data.

Database options

There are different ways to work with a database, using different kinds of database software. Some are fairly user-friendly, whereas others require you to understand a coding language called SQL.

The resources on this page focus on Microsoft Access, which is part of the Office suite of applications. Access allowing you to create, manage, and query databases without knowing SQL and using an interface that will be familiar to users of other Office apps like Word and Excel.

However, Access is only available on Windows PCs, and Access databases aren't suitable for use on the web.

IT Services have more details about database services available at the University of York.

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Essential Access

Our Essential Access course has been designed so you can work through it at your own pace. There are two booklets and an exercise sheet, plus some accommpanying MS Access files to use for the exercises.

To get started:

  1. Download your own copies of the materials from below or copy them from the T: Drive on a University PC (including the VDS)
  2. Read through the Essential Access introduction slides
  3. Work through the sections in the booklets, reading over the content and familiarising yourself with Access, then try the exercises for that section

Structured Query Language

To work with databases, you often need to use a special language the database software understands, called Structured Query Language, or SQL for short. It works with a huge variety of database systems, which makes it a useful transferable coding language if you want to work with databases.

Note: you don't need to know SQL to use MS Access. However, you can view the SQL code from the queries you create by toggling your query view to SQL, which can be a good way to start picking up the basics of how SQL works.

Learn SQL

There are lots of free online resources for learning SQL. Below we've suggested a few you might want to look into (we've not used them all, so think critically about them), or you could search online for SQL resources that suit your interests.

There are also free online courses that look at database basics as well as how to write SQL to work with them, such as this Introduction to Databases and SQL course from Raspberry Pi on FutureLearn or this Introduction to Database Queries course from NYU on edX.

You can also find more specific SQL resources like IBM's SQL for Data Science on edX or the range of database-related courses that Stamford offer on edX which start at introductory and then cover specific topics.

And if you want to have some fun whilst learning SQL or practising what you're learnt, try out the SQL Murder Mystery from the Northwestern University Knight Lab.