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Is There Such a Thing as an Easy to Use, Lightweight Relational Database?
by Dana DeFebbo

In past years, the answer to this question was likely a resounding “No.” This has now changed with the release of Airtable. Airtable is a cloud-based, lightweight relational database that integrates the relational database function of something like Microsoft Access with the overall easier to understand layout of a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel. However, Airtable is by and large much easier to use than Access and Excel, it is web-based so it can run on any machine with nothing to download, and it is mostly free (more on that in a bit). Airtable is accessible at Airtable.com <https://airtable.com> as well as via an iOS and Android app.

How it works

To get started, you can simply start out by creating an account < https://airtable.com/signup>.

Bases

Airtable calls their spreadsheets bases. Each base is equivalent to a spreadsheet and within each base, you can have multiple sheets, just like you can in Excel. However, what separates Airtable base sheets from traditional spreadsheets is the ability to link and reuse data from different sheets.

So for example, say you want to create a personal catalog of all the books you own, you can use Airtable to track this. In fact, Airtable has a base template for a personal book catalog you can see an example of below:

<iframe class="airtable-embed" src="https://airtable.com/embed/shrmWoGaBYan7tRSa?backgroundColor=orange" frameborder="0" onmousewheel="" width="100%" height="533" style="background: transparent; border: 1px solid #ccc;"></iframe>

You can see the Title column is the main column that acts as the key for the sheet. Each sheet has a separate key which is always the first column. A second tab called Authors is linked to the Author column in the Books tab. You can create any number of tabs and link them to any column.

Each column allows for a large variety of data field types including text, attachments, checkboxes, single select dropdown list of values, date, email address, number, currency, formula, barcode, and many more.

Views

The default view for Airtable is a standard grid view. The beauty of Airtable is that you can also turn your base into a Kanban board, a calendar, a gallery, or a form.

Sharing and Collaborating

You can invite people to collaborate on a base with you by creating teams and inviting people to collaborate on whatever bases are part of that team or you can give people individual access to view or edit a base. Airtable keeps track of revisions made so you can revert back to an earlier version if needed which is always helpful when collaborating with others. Additionally, Airtable allows you to embed a table on a site for view only access where people do not need an account to view it.

API

If you want to get really fancy, you can take advantage of Airtable’s API to read, update or delete records. There is extensive documentation for how to implement Airtable’s API if you want to integrate data into another application or website.

Pricing

Airtable is mostly free in that you can have unlimited bases without ever paying a penny. However, within each base, you will be limited to 1,200 records. A record in Airtable is equal to one row.

If you want more rows, you’ll then need to start paying - $12 a month per user.

Airtable does advertise that they offer a nonprofit and education discount, but they do not at this time advertise how much that discount is.

Templates

Airtable has some preconfigured templates that you can modify for your own needs. You can also start a base from scratch or import data from an existing CSV file to create a new base.
Some templates that may be relevant to your organization:

CRM (Customer Relationship Manager) – https://airtable.com/templates/search?q=crm
Personal Book/Media Catalog - https://airtable.com/templates/groups-clubs-and-hobbies/expMfOHvbmQdDqgrY/book-catalog
Project tracker - https://airtable.com/templates/featured/expZJgLA5YjprHz55/project-tracker
Employee tracking - https://airtable.com/templates/search?q=employee
User Studies - https://airtable.com/templates/search?q=user
Conference Planning - https://airtable.com/templates/featured/exppdJtYjEgfmd6Sq/conference-planning
Bug & Issue Tracker - https://airtable.com/templates/featured/expOzMycWirMsUOTL/bug-and-issue-tracker

The applications for Airtable are seemingly only limited by your imagination and what and how you want to track something.

Copyright 2017 by Dana DeFebbo.

About the author:
Dana DeFebbo is currently the Web Services Librarian at the Tarlton Law Library at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. She received her MSIS for the State University of New York at Albany and has worked in academic libraries for the past 11 years.