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Access 2010: The Missing Manual by Matthew MacDonald

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Getting Started with Your First Database

When you start Access, you begin in backstage view, with the New command already selected. From there, you’re just a few clicks away from generating a database of your very own.

In this chapter, you’ll slap together a fairly straightforward database. The example is designed to store a list of prized bobblehead dolls. (For those not in the know, a bobblehead doll is a toy figure with an oversized head on a spring, hence the signature “bobbling” motion. Bobblehead dolls usually resemble a famous celebrity, politician, athlete, or fictional character.)

Tip

You can get the Bobblehead database, and all the databases in this book, on the Missing CD page at www.missingmanuals.com/cds.

Here’s how to create a blank new database:

  1. If you’re currently working with a database, choose File→New. If you’ve just started Access, you’re there already.

    The Access window now has three columns (Figure 1-1). At left is a narrow strip of backstage commands. In the middle section, you choose the type of database you want. At far right is an optional picture that previews your choice, a text box for you to pick the file name, and the all-important Create button.

  2. At the far right, in the File Name box, type a file name for the database you’re about to create.

    Access stores all the information for a database in a single file with the extension .accdb (which stands for “Access database”). Don’t stick with the name Access picks automatically (like “Database1.accdb”). Instead, pick something more suitable. In this example, Bobblehead.accdb does the trick.

    As with any other file, Access files can contain a combination of letters, spaces, numbers, parentheses, hyphens (-), and the underscore (_). It’s generally safest to stay away from other special characters, some of which aren’t allowed.

    This database will be named Bobblehead.accdb. As you can see by the file path below the File Name box, it will be saved in the folder C:\Users\matthew\Documents. You can edit the file name by typing in the File Name box, and you can browse to a different folder by clicking the folder icon.

    Figure 1-1. This database will be named Bobblehead.accdb. As you can see by the file path below the File Name box, it will be saved in the folder C:\Users\matthew\Documents. You can edit the file name by typing in the File Name box, and you can browse to a different folder by clicking the folder icon.

    Note

    Depending on your computer settings, Windows may hide file extensions. Instead of seeing the Access database file MyScandalousWedding.accdb in file-browsing tools like Windows Explorer, you may just see the name MyScandalousWedding (without the .accdb part on the end). In this case, you can still tell the file type by looking at the icon. If you see a small Access icon (which looks like a key) next to the file name, that’s your signal that you’re looking at an Access database.

  3. Choose a folder.

    Like all Office programs, Access assumes you want to store every file you create in your personal Documents folder. If this isn’t what you want, click the folder icon to show the File New Database dialog box, browse to the folder you want (Figure 1-2), and then click OK.

  4. In the middle of the window, choose “Blank database”.

    When you choose to create a blank database, that’s exactly what you get—a new, empty database file with no tables or other database objects. Starting from scratch is the best way to learn about Access. It’s also the favorite choice of database experts, who prefer to create everything themselves so it’s exactly the way they like it. That said, you can click one of the other pictures under the Available Templates heading to build a database based on a template. The box on Templates: One Size Fits Some has more about this approach.

    The File New Database dialog box lets you choose where you’ll store a new Access database file. It also gives you the option to create your database in the format used by older versions of Access (.mdb), instead of the more modern format used by Access 2010 and Access 2007 (.accdb). To do so, you need to choose either the 2000 or 2002-2003 format options from the “Save as type” list, as shown here.

    Figure 1-2. The File New Database dialog box lets you choose where you’ll store a new Access database file. It also gives you the option to create your database in the format used by older versions of Access (.mdb), instead of the more modern format used by Access 2010 and Access 2007 (.accdb). To do so, you need to choose either the 2000 or 2002-2003 format options from the “Save as type” list, as shown here.

  5. Click the big Create button (under the File Name box).

    Access creates your database file and then shows a datasheet where you can get to work creating your first table.

Once you create or open a database, the Access window changes quite a bit. An impressive-looking toolbar (the ribbon) appears at the top of your screen, and a navigation pane shows up on the left. You’re now in the control center where you’ll perform all your database tasks (as shown in Figure 1-3).

The navigation pane on the left lets you see different items (or objects) in your database. You can use the navigation pane to jump from a list of products to a list of customers and back again. The ribbon along the top groups together every Access command. This ribbon is the mission control that lets you perform various tasks with your database. The document window in the middle takes up the rest of the window. This window is where you’ll do your work, such as designing tables and entering data.

Figure 1-3. The navigation pane on the left lets you see different items (or objects) in your database. You can use the navigation pane to jump from a list of products to a list of customers and back again. The ribbon along the top groups together every Access command. This ribbon is the mission control that lets you perform various tasks with your database. The document window in the middle takes up the rest of the window. This window is where you’ll do your work, such as designing tables and entering data.

The Introduction covers the basics of how the ribbon works. (Jump to The Ribbon for the full details.) Now, it’s time to consider how you can make use of your brand-new, empty database by adding a table.

Note

Keen eyes will notice that the title bar of the Access window has the text “Access 2007” in it. (For example, if you created a database named Bobblehead, you’ll see the text “Bobblehead: Database (Access 2007).” Don’t worry, you don’t have a bum copy of Access. The 2007 simply denotes that you’re using the modern format of database, which was was introduced in Access 2007 and is still used in Access 2010. As you’ll discover in later chapters, there are a few new Access 2010 features that can break this compatibility, so your database won’t work completely in Access 2007. But even in this situation, the title bar still says “Access 2007”.

Understanding Tables

Tables are information containers. Every database needs at least one table—without it, you can’t store any data. In a simple database, like the Bobblehead database, a single table (which we’ll call Dolls) is enough. But if you find yourself wanting to store several lists of related information, then you need more than one table. In the database BigBudgetWedding.accdb, you might want to keep track of the guests that you invited to your wedding, the gifts that you requested, and the loot that you actually received. In Chapter 5, you’ll see plenty of examples of databases that use multiple tables.

Figure 1-4 shows a sample table.

In a table, each record occupies a separate row. Each field is represented by a separate column. In this table, it’s clear that you’ve added six bobblehead dolls. You’re storing information for each doll in five fields (ID, Character, Manufacturer, PurchasePrice, and DateAcquired).

Figure 1-4. In a table, each record occupies a separate row. Each field is represented by a separate column. In this table, it’s clear that you’ve added six bobblehead dolls. You’re storing information for each doll in five fields (ID, Character, Manufacturer, PurchasePrice, and DateAcquired).

Before you start designing this table, you need to know some very basic rules:

  • A table is a group of records. A record is a collection of information about a single thing. In the Dolls table, for example, each record represents a single bobblehead doll. In a Family table, each record would represent a single relative. In a Products table, each record would represent an item that’s for sale. You get the idea. When you create a new database, Access starts you out with a new table named Table1, although you can choose a more distinctive name when you decide to save it.

  • Each record is subdivided into fields. Each field stores a distinct piece of information. For example, in the Dolls table, one field stores the person on whom the doll is based, another field stores the price, another field stores the date you bought it, and so on.

  • Tables have a rigid structure. In other words, you can’t bend the rules. If you create four fields, every record must have four fields (although it’s acceptable to leave some fields blank if they don’t apply).

  • Newly created tables get an ID field for free. The ID field stores a unique number for each record. (Think of it as a reference number that will let you find a specific record later on.) The best part about the ID field is that you can ignore it when you’re entering a new record. Access chooses a new ID number for you and inserts it in the record automatically. You’ll learn much more about ID fields on AutoNumber.

Creating a Simple Table

When you first create a database, it’s almost empty. But in order to get you started, Access creates your first database object—a table named Table1. The problem is, this table begins life completely blank, with no defined fields (and no data).

If you followed the steps to create a new database (Getting Started with Your First Database), you’re already at the Datasheet view (Figure 1-4), which is where you enter data into a table. All you need to do is customize this table so that it meets your needs.

There are two ways to customize a table:

  • Design view lets you precisely define all aspects of a table before you start using it. Almost all database pros prefer Design view, and you’ll start using it in Chapter 2.

  • Datasheet view is where you enter data into a table. Datasheet view also lets you build a table on the fly as you insert new information. You’ll use this approach in this chapter.

The following steps show you how to turn a blank new table (like Table1) into the Dolls table using the Datasheet view:

  1. To define your table, you need to add your first record.

    In this case, that means choosing a bobblehead doll to add to the list. For this example, you’ll use a nifty Homer Simpson replica.

    Note

    It doesn’t matter which doll you enter first. Access tables are unsorted, which means they have no underlying order. However, you can sort them any way you want when you need to retrieve information later on.

  2. In the datasheet’s rightmost column, under the “Click to Add” heading, type the first piece of information for the record (see Figure 1-5).

    Based on the simple analysis you performed earlier, you know that you need to enter four fields of information for every doll. For the Homer Simpson doll, this information is “Homer Simpson” (the name), “Fictional Industries” (the manufacturer), “$7.99” (the price), and today’s date (the purchase date). Although you could start with any field, it makes sense to begin with the name, which is clearly an identifying detail.

    To fill in your first record, start by entering something in the first field of information (like the doll name “Homer Simpson”). Then, hit Tab to jump to the second column, and then enter the second piece of information. Ignore the ID column for now—Access adds that to every table to identify your records.

    Figure 1-5. To fill in your first record, start by entering something in the first field of information (like the doll name “Homer Simpson”). Then, hit Tab to jump to the second column, and then enter the second piece of information. Ignore the ID column for now—Access adds that to every table to identify your records.

  3. Press Tab to move to the next field, and return to step 2.

    Repeat steps 2 and 3 until you’ve added every field you need, being careful to put each separate piece of information into a different column.

    The only problem with the example so far is that as you enter a new record, Access creates spectacularly useless field names. You’ll see its choices at the top of each column (they’ll have names like Field1, Field2, Field3, and so on). The problem with using these meaningless names is that they might lead you to enter a piece of information in the wrong place. You could all too easily put the purchase price in the date column.

    Figure 1-6. The only problem with the example so far is that as you enter a new record, Access creates spectacularly useless field names. You’ll see its choices at the top of each column (they’ll have names like Field1, Field2, Field3, and so on). The problem with using these meaningless names is that they might lead you to enter a piece of information in the wrong place. You could all too easily put the purchase price in the date column.

    Note

    If you press Tab without entering any information, you’ll move to the next row and start inserting a new record. If you make a mistake, you can backtrack using the arrow keys.

  4. It’s time to fix your column names. Double-click the first column title (like Field1).

    The field name switches into Edit mode.

  5. Type in a new name, and then press Enter. Return to step 4.

    Repeat this process until you’ve cleaned up all the field names. The proper field names for this example are Character, Manufacturer, PurchasePrice, and Date-Acquired. Figure 1-7 shows how it works.

    To specify better field names, double-click the column title. Next, type in the real field name, and then press Enter. Page 83 has more about field naming, but for now just stick to short, text-only titles that don’t include any spaces, as shown here.

    Figure 1-7. To specify better field names, double-click the column title. Next, type in the real field name, and then press Enter. Page 83 has more about field naming, but for now just stick to short, text-only titles that don’t include any spaces, as shown here.

    Tip

    Don’t be too timid about tweaking your table. You can always rename fields later, or even add entirely new fields. (It’s also possible to delete existing fields, but that has the drawback of also clearing out all the data that’s stored in the field.)

  6. Choose File→Save (or press Ctrl+S) to save your table.

    Access asks you to supply a table name (see Figure 1-8).

    A good table name is a short text title that doesn’t have any spaces (like Dolls here).

    Figure 1-8. A good table name is a short text title that doesn’t have any spaces (like Dolls here).

  7. Type a suitable table name, and then click OK.

    Congratulations! The table is now a part of your database.

Note

Technically, you don’t need to save your table right away. Access prompts you to save it when you close the datasheet (by clicking the X at the document window’s top-right corner), or when you close Access.

As you can see, creating a simple table in Access is almost as easy as laying out information in Excel or Word. If you’re itching to try again, you can create another table in your database by choosing Create→Tables→Table from the ribbon. But before you get to that stage, it makes sense to take a closer look at how you edit your table.

Editing a Table

You now have a fully functioning (albeit simple) database, complete with one table, which in turn contains one record. Your next step is filling your table with useful information. This often-tedious process is data entry.

To fill the Dolls table, you use the same datasheet you used to define the table. You can perform three basic tasks:

  • Editing a record. Move to the appropriate spot in the datasheet (using the arrow keys or the mouse), and then type in a replacement value. You may also want to use Edit mode, which is described in the next section.

  • Inserting a new record. Move down to the bottom of the table to the row that has an asterisk (*) on the left. This row doesn’t actually exist until you start typing in some information. At that point, Access creates the row and moves the asterisk down to the next row underneath. You can repeat this process endlessly to add as many rows as you want (Access can handle millions).

  • Deleting a record. You have several ways to remove a record, but the easiest is to right-click the margin immediately to the left of the record, and then choose Delete Record. Access asks you to confirm that you really want to remove the selected record, because you can’t reverse the change later on.

Edit mode

You’ll probably spend a lot of time working with the datasheet. So settle in. To make your life easier, it helps to understand a few details.

As you already know, you can use the arrow keys to move from field to field or row to row. However, you might have a bit of trouble editing a value. When you start typing, Access erases any existing content. To change this behavior, you need to switch into Edit mode by pressing the F2 key; in Edit mode, your typing doesn’t delete the stuff that’s already in that field. Instead, you get to change or add to it. To switch out of Edit mode, you press F2 again. Figure 1-9 shows a closeup look at the difference.

Top: Normal mode. If you start typing now, you’ll immediately erase the existing text (“Hobergarten”). The fact that all the text in the field is selected is a big clue that you’re about to wipe it out.Bottom: Edit mode. The cursor shows where you’re currently positioned in the current field. If you start typing now, you’ll insert text in between “Hober” and “garten”.

Figure 1-9. Top: Normal mode. If you start typing now, you’ll immediately erase the existing text (“Hobergarten”). The fact that all the text in the field is selected is a big clue that you’re about to wipe it out. Bottom: Edit mode. The cursor shows where you’re currently positioned in the current field. If you start typing now, you’ll insert text in between “Hober” and “garten”.

Edit mode also affects how the arrow keys work. In Edit mode, the arrow keys move through the current field. For example, to move to the next cell, you need to move all the way to the end of the current text, and then press the right arrow key again. But in Normal mode, pressing the arrow keys always moves you from cell to cell.

Datasheet shortcut keys

Power users know the fastest way to get work done is to use tricky keyboard combinations like Ctrl+Alt+Shift+*. Although you can’t always easily remember these combinations, a couple of tables can help you out. Table 1-1 lists some useful keys that can help you whiz around the datasheet.

Table 1-1. Keys for Moving Around the Datash

Key

Result

Tab (or Enter)

Moves the cursor one field to the right, or down when you reach the edge of the table. This key also turns off Edit mode if it’s currently switched on.

Shift+Tab

Moves the cursor one field to the left, or up when you reach the edge of the table. This key also turns off Edit mode.

Moves the cursor one field to the right (in Normal mode), or down when you reach the edge of the table. In Edit mode, this key moves the cursor through the text in the current field.

Moves the cursor one field to the left (in Normal mode), or up when you reach the edge of the table. In Edit mode, this key moves the cursor through the text in the current field.

Moves the cursor up one row (unless you’re already at the top of the table). This key also turns off Edit mode.

Moves the cursor down one row (or it moves you to the “new row” position if you’re at the bottom of the table). This key also turns off Edit mode.

Home

Moves the cursor to the first field in the current row. This key brings you to beginning of the current field if you’re in Edit mode.

End

Moves the cursor to the last field in the current row. This key brings you to the end of the current field if you’re in Edit mode.

Page Down

Moves the cursor down one screenful (assuming you have a large table of information that doesn’t all fit in the Access window at once). This key also turns off Edit mode.

Page Up

Moves the cursor up one screenful. This key also turns off Edit mode.

Ctrl+Home

Moves the cursor to the first field in the first row. This key doesn’t do anything if you’re in Edit mode.

Ctrl+End

Moves the cursor to the last field in the last row. This key doesn’t do anything if you’re in Edit mode.

Table 1-2 lists some convenient keys for editing records.

Table 1-2. Keys for Editing Records

Key

Result

Esc

Cancels any changes you’ve made in the current field. This key works only if you use it in Edit mode. Once you move to the next cell, the change is applied. (For additional cancellation control, try the Undo feature, described next.)

Ctrl+Z

Reverses the last edit. Unfortunately, the Undo feature in Access isn’t nearly as powerful as it is in other Office programs. For example, Access lets you reverse only one change, and if you close the datasheet, you can’t even do that. You can use Undo right after you insert a new record to remove it, but you can’t use the Undo feature to reverse a delete operation.

Ctrl+”

Copies a value from the field that’s immediately above the current field. This trick is handy when you need to enter a batch of records with similar information. Figure 1-10 shows this often-overlooked trick in action.

Ctrl+;

Inserts today’s date into the current field. The date format is based on computer settings, but expect to see something like “24-12-2010”. You’ll learn more about how Access works with dates on Date/Time.

Ctrl+Alt+Space

Replaces whatever value you’ve entered with the field’s default value. You’ll learn how to designate a default value on Setting Default Values.

An Access user has been on an eBay buying binge and needs to add several doll records. With a quick Ctrl+” keystroke, you can copy the date from the previous record into the DateAcquired field of the new record.

Figure 1-10. An Access user has been on an eBay buying binge and needs to add several doll records. With a quick Ctrl+” keystroke, you can copy the date from the previous record into the DateAcquired field of the new record.

Cut, copy, and paste

Access, like virtually every Windows program, lets you cut and paste bits of information from one spot to another. This trick is easy using just three shortcut keys: Ctrl+C to copy, Ctrl+X to cut (similar to copy, but the original content is deleted), and Ctrl+V to paste. When you’re in Edit mode, you can use these keys to copy whatever you’ve selected. If you’re not in Edit mode, the copying or cutting operation grabs all the content in the field.

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