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So You Need A Database

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:

  1. Flat file -- anything you could keep as one notecard or table row per record: mailing addresses, product prices, current student grades. Tables in your word processor, Microsoft Works or Claris Works databases, spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel or Lotus 1-2-3 can all be used for flat file databases.

  2. Relational -- a related group of flat files such as a file of member names and addresses linked to a file containing the date and amount of every donation or purchase. You know you need a relational database when you start adding lots of similar fields to a flat file database (i.e. 1/98 donations, 2/98 donations etc.). This is also the choice when you need to keep a running total such at the total purchases for each customer for the year to date. I am amazed at the number of calls I've gotten lately asking for help with elaborate flat file spreadsheets. These callers have spent hours doing things which take minutes in a relational database like Microsoft Access or Claris (now Apple again) FileMaker Pro (version 3 or greater). There are other relational databases like dBase, FoxPro, Oracle, Paradox etc. but unless you want to make a living as a programmer (or hire one), you need not consider them. Access and FileMaker are much easier to learn, relatively inexpensive and will meet the needs of most smaller organizations.

  3. Pre-configured databases -- all those software packages that come with the fields and relationships already set up. You don't have to think about whether it is flat field of relational; all you have to do is enter the data. The down side is that you can't alter the structure if it doesn't do what you want. You must call (and often pay) the database creator for changes -- if they will make changes at all. ACT, Quicken and the many industry-specific packages are in this category (check magazines specific to your industry for ads). If someone has already set up a database which does what you want, this is almost always the fastest and most cost-effective choice provided the company stays in business.

    Your choice is not set in stone. If a pre-configured database does most of what you want, you can often export the data into your own database or spreadsheet to do that last little thing. If you set up your own database and decide you want to move to a pre-configured database many of them will allow you to import records during setup.

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

Call us at 206-523-0872 for help in solving your database problems.

copyright 1998 Karen Seymour

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