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Keeping Track of Everything in Your Life

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
August 2009 Issue
June 30, 2009

Keeping Track of Everything in Your Life

Books, DVDs, recipes, birds we’ve seen, and our family trees. My wife and I maintain all sorts of lists and databases to organize our lives.

For some lists, a simple spreadsheet or “flat file” database suffices. In other cases, you need a complex “relational” database that can perform all kinds of magic. Choosing the right tool for the task is based on your needs.

Using Spreadsheets for Lists

A spreadsheet is similar to a columnar book, featuring a giant table into which you can enter text or numeric data.

Modern spreadsheets are very good at managing lists and basic tables of data. However, there are limits. For example, the version of Microsoft Excel I use can only store 65,535 rows of data and each row is limited to 256 columns. More importantly, Excel seems to dislike more than 100,000 “populated” cells of data.

Though originally developed to analyze numeric data, modern spreadsheets include features specifically for lists. Instant sorting, filtering, and summarizing of data have been added to spreadsheets over the last two decades.

If you are dealing with what to a computer is a small amount of data, then a spreadsheet might be ideal for lists. The things I currently store in spreadsheets include:

CDs we own (and CDs we want to own);
Home remodeling tasks I need to do;
Grade books for each class I have taught; and
Columns I have written so I don’t repeat topics!

I have used Excel to track my CD collection for years. I am not performing any calculations on the data or creating complex reports. I merely want to avoid buying any music I already own. I also want to know which gaps exist in my music collection.

When You Need a Database

When you have a lot of information, and sets of information that relate to each other, it’s time to consider a database.

While I created custom spreadsheets, I tend to prefer specialized databases. A few years ago, I would have designed databases for personal use with Microsoft Access or FileMaker Pro. Not anymore.

Examples of the specialized databases my wife and I use:

Bookends and EndNote for books and magazines;
MacGourmet Deluxe for recipes;
Reunion for genealogy data; and
iTunes for music, video, and audio files.

My spreadsheet list of CDs does not include individual songs, composers, or detailed information about who was in a band when a particular album was recorded. By comparison, iTunes is a combination database and media player. Within iTunes, I store lots of extra information. There are more than three dozen fields you can edit for each file tracked within iTunes. My spreadsheet only has three columns: artist, album, year.

Within iTunes, a song can be assigned to several “playlists” and located based on numerous criteria. That power to sort and search for information is a strength of databases.

Genealogy demonstrates how databases make a hobby easier. There are dozens of good databases for those interested in family histories, for both Windows and OS X. Though you can keep records on paper, or even in spreadsheets, the power of databases makes the hobby more enjoyable.

Databases can reveal connections you might overlook on paper. For example, you can find out instantly who was born in the same city, no matter how far apart the “branches” of the family tree might be. Most genealogy software can create illustrated family trees, ready to print. It would take hours and hours to do this by hand.

My favorite database is Bookends. It’s like iTunes for the written word.

Bookends and EndNote let users store information about books and articles. While we use Bookends to track which books we own, these databases were meant to make “academic writing” easier.

Though I am a writing teacher, I have to admit that formatting footnotes and endnotes has always confounded me. There are dozens of “correct” ways to format citations, all depending on the preference of a particular publication, professional organization, or academic institution. My students struggle with formatting citations, and I always admit how confusing it can be.

With Bookends, I can select a book and request the proper citation format based on where I am sending a manuscript. Bookends and Endnote can also create complete bibliographies, which are then inserted into any word processor of my choice or even a Web page.

Most people will never need a database like Bookends, but it exists because students and teachers were creating their own databases. Universities encourage students to use citation databases because it frees students to concentrate on what they write.

FileMaker and Access

The two major “end-user” database tools in use today are Microsoft Access and FileMaker Pro. These tools are meant for single users and small groups wanting to organize information.

Honestly, I don’t think most computer users need to learn Access or FileMaker. While sold as “simple” database systems, the reality is that most of what you might want to do with Access or FileMaker has already been done by other people. FileMaker now ships Bento, a database system with hundreds of free and low-cost templates for almost every purpose imaginable.

No matter what your hobby or profession, there are likely dozens of databases designed for people with the same needs. The proliferation of affordable, easy-to-use databases has allowed my wife and I to indulge our impulses to organize life.

The term “data base” (or “database”) was coined in 1964, according to IBM’s Journal of Research and Development. By comparison, it wasn’t until 1972 that word processing as we know it was possible. Most computers used punch cards and typewriter-like “console” keyboards without video terminals until the 1970s. Why would you use a computer when a typewriter was easier and faster?

There was an explosion of database tools in the 1980s, including dBase, FoxPro, Paradox, and Access. Databases, spreadsheets, and word processing were the “killer apps” that made personal computers appealing to businesses of all sizes. Unlike word processors or spreadsheets, no one database dominates the software universe.


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