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Microsoft Access is the database component of the Office suite, included in all "Professional" editions of Microsoft Office. We use database management systems to organize and store our data, so we can retrieve it as useful information. Access is a powerful, flexible, yet easy-to-use relational database management system.

Nearly everyone has used a database at some time, perhaps without even knowing it. Anyone who has kept a “little black book” of names and phone numbers knows what a database is (OK let's make it clear: the "little black book" = a database). Database management has incredibly wide applicability. Consider for a moment who uses databases, and what for:

  • Businesses use databases to keep track of customers, inventory, and sales.

  • Trade associations, nonprofit organizations, and public interest groups use them to keep track of their membership.

  • People like us use databases at home to keep track of addresses and phone numbers, to catalog our household goods, or to manage our collections.

The PC database market was crowded once, but Access has emerged as the leader. This is because Access is not only powerful, but also easy to use.

Of course, with Access, as with any database management system, the learning curve is a little steeper than it is with, say, Word or Excel. Designing a database involves a lot of careful planning “up front.” It means deciding first what data you want to keep track of, and how you want to organize it. This determines what data tables you create, what data you’ll enter into them, and how you’ll tie it all together.

Next you must decide what you want to retrieve from the database. Do you want to view subsets of the data from a single table? Or data drawn from several tables? Do you want to group related records, or perform calculations on the data? This is what queries are for. Your answers to these questions will determine what queries you create.

Finally, you must decide how you want to present your data, both what you’ve entered and what you’ve retrieved. Will you view your data only on screen or print it out? If you print it, will you print it “raw” or as a polished report? This is where forms and reports come into play.

Access has templates to help you get started creating your database, and Wizards to guide you through the process of creating the basic database objects (data tables, queries, forms, and reports).

As you become more familiar with Access, you’ll come to appreciate its many capabilities not only as a database management system but also as a platform for developing applications. Think of an application as a set of tables, queries, data-entry forms, and reports with a friendly face – user interface, that is. Access has some handy  tools to help you turn your database into an application:

  • The Startup feature lets you specify what menus, toolbars, and forms appear automatically whenever you open your database.

  • The Switchboard manager helps you create a menu form for your application.

  • Macros let you automate tasks without having to learn how to program.

Access works well with the other applications in the Office suite. Here are some examples:

  • If you have data entered into Excel spreadsheets or delimited Word documents, you can import those documents into Access.

  • You can export your Access data tables as Excel spreadsheets or Word tables.

  • You can keep large numbers of names and addresses in an Access data table, and use that table as a data source in a Word mail merge.
Box shots reprinted with permission from Microsoft Corporation.

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Last modified: June 05, 2004

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