Getting to Know Airtable
If you haven’t read my first post about Databases, I suggest checking out Spreadsheets vs. Databases – Up Your Data Management Game. If you’re not familiar with databases instead of spreadsheets, that post is a great place to start. In this post, I want to introduce you to my favorite database tool, Airtable. I was introduced to Airtable by my coworker after many years of using a different fully customizable database program. The ease and features available made Airtable not only my first choice of database solution but one I recommend to everyone else – like you dear reader!
What is it?
Airtable is an online database, meaning all of your data is stored on Airtable’s servers (cloud). This is great because it means you can access it from anywhere that you have an internet connection. This is also bad because it means you can’t access it if you don’t have an internet connection. That’s really the only downside. Since most of the work I do at school requires internet anyway, this is mostly a non-issue. Airtable can be accessed from both a web browser and their app (available on both iOS and Android). The main difference with the app is that it really is for viewing or editing records, not for setting up a database. More on that below.
One of the great things for band directors/music teachers on a budget is that Airtable is free – to a certain point. Most of what you likely would need to do can be accomplished with the free version. There are some benefits to the paid version like custom reports/ but most of those features are more aimed at large-scale businesses.
Why you might want to use it?
One of the best things about Airtable is that it is collaborative in real-time, just like the Google tools like Docs or Sheets. This makes it super easy for co-workers to collaborate on the same file at the same time without messing anything up. You can even see a highlighted cell where others are working just like in Google.
Coming from working with Filemaker, which is a fully customizable and very powerful database tool, Airtable is much easier to understand. I’m not going to write a full how-to guide here because Airtable has some great support videos, but I will give a few basics to know. The biggest nomenclature difference is that you call things records, and each record has a unique identifier. If you’re managing students it’s probably best to use their school-issued ID number as those will be unique anyway. If you’re cataloging an instrument inventory or music library, you’ll want to make sure you have your own unique way of numbering things. Do this first as it will save headaches later on.
Once you know what records you’re adding to your database you can start adding fields. These will look like columns in a table when you’re in a table view. Airtable has many choices for formatting the fields – dates, currency, numbers – but my favorites have to be Single and Multiple Select. This allows the user to create a list of choices. I use this all the time for things like instrument names and lesson groups – really anything that I’m putting in that could be used more than once. The beauty of this field is that Airtable will sort by whatever you set as the order when you customize the field. For band directors, this means that you can sort by score order – something you could never do (easily) in Excel or Sheets. Using Multiple Select allows you to tag one record with multiple labels. this could be useful for tagging pieces in your library as multiple things like both a Solo and a Slow piece, or you could tag all the key signatures used in the piece.
One of the other field types is the attachment field. Here you can upload files either from your computer, Google Drive, Dropbox, or by uploading from your phone. We use the upload field a few different ways. One of the situations is where the mobile app is great: when an instrument comes in from repair we attach the invoice using the app to keep track of the repair history. This has been super helpful for proving to our administration that it’s more cost-effective to replace certain instruments.
Level Up – Linking Databases
Perhaps the most powerful feature of Airtable is to link fields across tables within the same Database. This is where Airtable, or really any database, really beats a spreadsheet. For our situation at work, we have five tables in one database: a student info sheet, a jazz band students list, an instrument inventory, a repair history, and a locker inventory. We link fields across these tables so that a student can be associated with a particular instrument in the inventory, or a particular locker in the band room. Airtable can also be used for things such as logging payments for trips using multiple tables and formulas. It can get a little complicated but it is really no worse than setting up formulas in Excel or Sheets.
If you are tired of working with spreadsheets, don’t want to shell out precious funds for a pre-made solution, and don’t mind a little DIY computer work, Airtable is probably the thing you’ve been looking for to make your life easier.
Getting Creative with Airtable – Part Two
Look for Part Two about Airtable where I go over some creative ways to use some of the features of Airtable – coming soon!