Only amateurs…

…use a spreadsheet for a database.

As I recall, that was a pretty popular opinion among the digerati a while back (maybe a LONG while back), regarding those who built databases with spreadsheets with the same derision you’d use for someone who uses word processing software to do calculations.

I keep track of Cites & Insights general themes–how recently they’ve appeared–and current segments (how long, status, etc.) with a one-page Word table, which includes a bottom-of-page running total of current wordcount. Why Word, not Excel? Because it’s convenient and it works. And, y’know, I don’t have to leave the program to update an item; just open the document.

Are there still people who believe this–that any proper database is built and maintained using a database program, that only amateurs and other idiots use Excel for databases?

I wonder. If so, they can just call me another technophobic idiot.

I’ve used a number of different databases over the years at home (and, of course, at work–SPIRES was/is one damn powerful database management system, easy to build new databases and with nearly unlimited power for old ones: I was sorry when we made the, I suppose, inevitable switch to a Proper Relational Database.). Hell, I’ve written database management systems using high-level programming tools…

And, well, today I just shut down the last database I was using at home, converting it to an Excel spreadsheet. Partly because I couldn’t seem to do the data validation in the LibreOffice version of the Access database that I wanted (and it was truly trivial to recreate the same validation in Excel–two minutes work at most), partly because, after fighting with LibreOffice’s report writer long enough to get a semi-workable report, I realized that the equivalent report would take, oh, 30 seconds to create in Excel (it’s just a pivot table with a heading).

And, now that it’s in Excel, I don’t have the field length limitations I had in Access (once you’ve defined a field length, that’s pretty much it). Or other limitations.

Oh, sure, at some point I could exceed the limitations of a single spreadsheet. But after my experiences with the massively complex spreadsheets for my liblog projects, I don’t see that point happening any time soon.

This is just a musing, I suppose, having to do with how times change. Yes, there are almost certainly home databases that Excel just can’t handle–but for lots of databases, it now strikes me as the preferable tool. I’m guessing the same is true for LibreOffice Spreadsheet.

This is another random musing of no lasting significance…

4 Responses to “Only amateurs…”

  1. Steven Kaye Says:

    I long to be able to toss off lines like “it’s just a pivot table” some day. Some day.

  2. walt Says:

    I almost wrote “it’s just a crosstab,” because that’s what I think of it as–a set of subtotals for values in one column based on unique values in another column, in this case the columns being expense amounts and expense categories–but it’s one instance of a pivot table in Excel.

    I’m no Excel expert; I just played with it and used Help to browse around. (Vlookup, which was essential to converting one two-table database to a spreadsheet, is still tough enough that I can’t get it right the first time, but…) And I have yet to set up spreadsheets that refer to other spreadsheets, as opposed to other pages within the same file…

  3. Michael Golrick Says:

    I am not sure I agree…maybe because I have become so expert in Excel, and because it meets my needs.

    Yes, Access can do some things better, but the amount of time to invest in learning which is then not transferable to anything else, and the re-learning I need to do each time I go back to it (after a 6 – 18 month absence) means that I use Excel for a lot.

    One of my favorite functions these days is “COUNTIF” which can tell me how many have answered a question.

    And, you can link between spreadsheets, and even workbooks. I have moved all my (admittedly simple) personal accounting (i.e. checkbook balancing and bill paying) to Excel (even if my wife mocks me…)

  4. walt Says:

    Michael: Thanks for the comment.

    If you’re saying you disagree with the statement in the post title, so do I.

    This was an off-the-cuff post, and maybe I didn’t make it clear enough: For most people and for most purposes, Excel (or its competitors) has become the most appropriate database tool available. My brother has linked workbooks for his role as a church treasurer; I use linked spreadsheets within a workbook (OK, I’m sloppy, I called them pages within a spreadsheet) all the time; and my crude household accounting tools are in Excel. (Checkbook balancing I do on paper.)

    What I’m basically saying is that the old assertion that you should always use a DBMS for databases, which may never have been true, is now false for many, probably most household and small-scale databases. I think you agree with that.


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