Airtable, A Cool New Toy

The other day, I was diligently working. Yes, when you are an academic librarian, you can consider cruising the internet as work.  It’s a perk.  Anyway, I was online and I found an interesting new toy called Airtable.  

Airtable isAirtable a database that is tailor-made for people who don’t know databases, and a great way to get an intuitive feel for how relational databases work.  Hold up my fellow librarians!  I am not talking about the databases that we use every day, otherwise known as the catalog, or Academic Search Complete, or any other Ebsco, JSTOR or Proquest database.  Of course we know how to get knowledge out of these databases (or at least how to use the help function).  But there are databases, and then there are databases.  Although really when we define a database, it boils down to a bunch of organized information.  That organization can be text files or an Excel spreadsheet, or it can be much fancier like Oracle or MySql.   

When I say people who don’t know databases, I mean people who don’t know how to create databases or use fancy query languages in order to extract the information.  And again, librarians, when I say fancy query languages, I’m going a little beyond the realm of Boolean Operators.

The reason I’m excited about Airtable is because you can create little databases that can be accessed from any device.  When you create a database, it looks and feels like an Excel or Google Sheet spreadsheet that we are all familiar with using, but it has more advanced features so  you can really get some functionality.  You can add records and values to your list using the same keyboard shortcuts you’re used to with Excel. However, Airtable also offers additional features that aren’t possible with typical spreadsheets, like expandable note fields and file attachments. Another interesting feature that Airtable provides is the ability to create different tables that link to one another.

So for example, I am testing out the database to use it as a repository for photos taken in the library.  Library staff take pictures all the time during events, for marketing purposes, or just to mark changes the layout.  In a small library, everyone does a little bit of everything, and that means that we have several different people who have a ton of random photos in various places.  Some are on computers, some are on phones, some are in shared drives; it’s a total mess.  I wanted to create a repository for the library photos, but be able to cross-reference them with different events, or sort via where or when the picture was taken, or even whether it has already been posted on facebook.  


I created a database where I uploaded a picture or a grouping of pictures to each entry, gave it a somewhat arbitrary descriptive title and then tried to do some description (yes, we are talking about controlled metadata).  It is really easy to attach pictures, and you can attach items from your computer, a url, your phone, Dropbox, Google Drive, Facebook, and the list goes on.  



A lot of our pictures centered around events, so I made a separate tab for the Events, and then when it fits, I link the record to the event tab entries and add groupings of pictures to each event.  So if our Christmas Reception happens every year, I can describe it and attach pictures from this year, last year and the year before, with the click of a button.


But what is really cool about it is the amount of control I have over the database.  I can grant access to specific people or to anyone to be able to upload photos.  If I were feeling brave and optimistic, I could share a link or embed this form on our website and invite anyone to upload library photos!  And yes, it’s a really boring form, but you can customize the questions you want to put on it, or descriptors.   I can also share the database with anyone and determine the amount of access they have, whether it’s view only, or whether they can edit the information or create new columns, etc.

Also you can export all your data to a .csv file, or share the API to do other cool data science things to it.

If you have an iPhone, there is also an app that lets you access Airtable, and let me tell you that app is pretty cool, although I wish that it had the ability to upload several photos to a record instead of making me upload them one at a time.

Oh and the best part?  The price.  It starts at free.  Since this is a relatively new company/product, I don’t know how long that will last, but until then, the party is on!


PLEASE NOTE: I was not paid in any way, shape, or form for this review, although Airtable people,  if you are listening, please know that I would not have any objections to that.


About Ellie Kohler

I'm the Access and Learning Services Librarian at Rockhurst University, and was a founding member of the ILL Special Interest Group. My specialties include interlibrary loan, instruction, reference, circulation, reserves, and wrangling 40 (or so) student assistants. I continue to defy the librarian stereotype by keeping a cat-free household.
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