Teaching with Databases


Non-Electronic Databases

What's a Database?

A database here is defined as:

a set of data or information organized into one or more categories

When we hear the term "database" we typically think of electronic databases, but this definition includes non-electronic forms such as a dictionary, phone book, card catalog or even a grocery list. In fact, databases have existed since the invention of writing. Some of the most valued documents in historical or archaeological research are non electronic databases including temple inventories, king lists, chronological event listings and property records such as the Norman Domesday Book.

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Records and Fields

Databases are generally organized into individual entries or records of data, each of which include certain categories of data or fields. For instance a dictionary includes records for individual words, each of which includes information or fields for spelling, pronunciation. etymology and different word meanings.

Dictionary as Database

Records: Individual Words
Fields: Spelling, pronunciation, etymology, word meanings

Similarly an ancient king list (or a list of presidents in the U.S.) would include the name of the ruler, the dates of the reign and possibly a list of accomplishments.

King List as Database

Records: Individual rulers
Fields: Name, dates of reign, accomplishments, dynasty


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Sorting Records

In order to make searching for individual records easier in a non-electronic database, records in these documents are usually organized into some type of order or sort which makes it easier to find an individual record. Some examples of sorts include:

  1. Alphabetical (A to Z) - Such as in a dictionary or book index
  2. Chronological - By time of event, such as in a calendar or list of U.S. Presidents
  3. Numeric - By numeric value, such as lists ordered by student ID number
  4. Geographic - By location of a record, such as in property records in a county
  5. Topic - Some systems, such as a call number list, are organized by topic area
  6. By Record Number - A list showing the order in which records were entered. A non-electronic database example is a grocery list which lists things you remember first

Complex Sorts

Some large databases can be sorted primarily on one method, and the sub lists can then be resorted in these groups in another fashion. An example of this could be a list of U.S. Senators addresses which are first sorted by state, then again alphabetically by last name. See the example below.

Senator List : By State then Last Name

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Milulski, Barbara (D)
Sarbanes, Paul (D)

New Jersey

Corzine, Jon (D)
Lautenberg, Frank (D)

New York

Clinton, Hilary (D)
Schumer, Charles (D)


DeWine, Mike (R)
Voinovich, George (R)


Santorum, Rick (R)
Spector, Arlen (R)

Multiple Sorts (Codex)

Some databases may work best with multiple primary sorts. For instance, a traditional library card catalog typically had three parallel sets of cards. One sorted alphabetically by book title, one sorted alphabetically by author last name and one sorted by topic.

A similar strategy is to maintain one complete set of data in one sort, but have another index list which points users to the full entry. For instance, an address book is usually organized alphabetically by last name, but some include another section to list birthday's with a name in chronological order throughout the year. If someone needs an address or phone number, then he or she would look it the record by last name. This secondary list can also be called a "codex."

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Quick Review

Roll your mouse over the blue box after each question to see the answer.
Note: Answers are already displayed in older browsers.

For each item, determine if it is a non-electronic database.

1. List of current U.S. Congressional Representatives

Answer: Database. Records are each representative. Fields may be states, parties, names, districts.

2. A haiku poem

Answer: This is not a database

3. Thesaurus

Answer: This is a database. Records are individual words. The list of synonyms represents a field.

4. Bibliography

Answer: This is a database. Each citation is a record with fields for title, author, date, publisher.

5. Collection of haiku poems

Answer: This is a database where each poem is a record and fields may be poem test,title, author, date.

6. Sheet music for "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer"

Answer: Not a database, although the music has internal structure.

For each non-electronic database, consider what would be the "fields" and "records".

1. Periodic Table of elements

Answer: Each chemical is a record. Individual properties (e.g. melting point, atomic number) are fields.

2. Index of book

Answer: Each entry is a record. Page numbers and synonyms are fields.

3. Museum exhibition collection

Answer: Each artwork is a record. Artist, materials, size and description are fields.

4. Appointment Calendar

Answer: Each appointment is a record with a date, meeting time, and location. In simpler calendars, each date is a record.

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Last Update: December 7, 2012