Elements of a Database

Over the years in my consulting business, perhaps the most common way I find individuals handling information for their jobs is in Excel spreadsheets. Almost every one in every position needs to keep some type of information that is specific to their job. And Excel is a great place to do it. It is fairly easy to use, you can sort by columns and you can even share the information with Word to create form letters and address labels. But sooner or later most of us get to the place where we need a better way to use and manage our data, especially if we want to use our data in many different places or summarize and report on it.

In a later article, we will explore some of the ways FileMaker Pro and Excel can work together. Here I bring it up because if you are familiar with storing data in Excel, you will understand some of the basic elements on a database.


The Table

Data is stored in tables. An Excel worksheet is a table. A table is a collection of data about a specific thing, such as people or companies or products. My wife has a spreadsheet on which she checks off what groceries she needs this week. This is a table about groceries, not people invited to my daughter’s birthday party next month. This is important to understand: a table should only contain information about a specific thing, subject, or entity. Here is a table of people:


Rows and Columns

A table is made up of rows and columns. Each row represents one person in our sample table. Steve Linder is the Support Representative for Carp Corp. Ideally, no other row should contain Steve Linder’s name or information. On my wife’s grocery list each line contains one grocery item. So, a row represents one specific, unique person in our table above.

Each column represents an attribute of that person. Steve Linder’s position is “Support Representative.” His company is “Carp Corp.” Attributes may be the same for different people: Betty Brown also works for Carp Corp. Someone’s first and last names are attributes of that unique person, even though many people may have the same name. (This presents a problem when storing data about people, but we will talk about how to solve it later.)

In FileMaker Pro, a row is called a “record.” Each person in our database will have his or her own record. The attributes describing that person are “fields.” If our table were in FileMaker Pro, the columns are fields and the column headers at the top of our table are the field names. Here is what our table may look like in FileMaker Pro 8.5:



In FileMaker Pro, a file can contain many tables. Prior to FileMaker Pro 7, each file could contain only one table. Because of this, it was common for FileMaker developers to use the words “file” and “table” interchangeably. This has changed since FileMaker Pro 7, but you may still run across this in articles about FileMaker database design.


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