Mailing labels, price sheets, student records: every organization needs to track constantly changing information and call it up on demand. This is one of the things for which computers are really useful. Picking the wrong software for the task can make it tedious and painful. How do you make the right choice?
Some terms will make this discussion easier. "Record" refers to each unique entry: Dave Smith's record in my mailing list is different from Ann Brown's. The term "field" refers to the location of specific data in the record: the first name field, the last name field, the address field etc. "Dave" is the data in the first name field of Dave Smith's record.
From a user's perspective database software can be divided into 3 types:
Figuring out where to start
Regardless of whether you choose a pre-configured database or decide to put together your own, you need to look at what information you want out of the database. All databases start as flat files and get built onto from there. You can start small but you should map out the overall scope of your needs so that your flat file is easy to extend, link or export.
Even though it is intuitive to start by discussing what you want to put into your database, the best place to start is to consider all the information you want out of it. This will let you know what fields you need include to sort and present the data properly. Or, if you are evaluating a pre-configured database, whether it will do what you need.
Another consideration is whether more than one person needs to look at the records at the same time. This is called multi-user. There are several levels of sophistication here. If the other people only need to look at but not change data, they can open a read-only copy while you work on the original. This is possible with even the simplest flat file database. If, on the other hand, several people need to enter and change data in the same database at the same time, you should look for a pre-configured database or create your own using Microsoft Access or FileMaker Pro. I find Access does a better job with complex relationships. Access isn't available for the Mac but FileMaker Pro 4 will work well enough in most circumstances. Access has better multi-user capabilities for up to about eight users.
Download my simple Microsoft Access database for Mailing and Donation tracking.
If you are a non-profit, you can download a free FileMaker fundraising and tracking database from ebase.org
Call us at 206-523-0872 for help in solving your database problems.
copyright 1998 Karen Seymour
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