In Praise of the Humble Access Database

AJ Mastav
5 min readFeb 8, 2024
The Good Ol’ Northwind Traders Tutorial Database

Like Billie Eilish, I have a strange addiction. In my case, it falls under the subheading of Dorky Addictions: developing databases in Microsoft’s Access Database program.

It all started years ago when I was an intern. The office I was working in organized data using Access, so I had to spend an afternoon going through a tutorial on how the program worked. In those first hours I hated it — it had none of the flexibility of either a spreadsheet or a word processing document. You have to work with so many different tools just to get to a simple answer: you have tables, queries, forms, and reports — not inviting to the new user.

But after a few weeks, I saw the magic of it.

So much sturdier, more permanent, more of a total data package than a spreadsheet. So easy to input large amounts of data once there’s a good form in place. When I learned about macros, fuggedaboudit — I was in heaven.

I leveraged that brief experience into a year-long temp job developing and maintaining Access databases at the headquarters of a bank, in a department that did software testing. Suddenly, I was responsible for tracking all kinds of (dummy) account numbers and software issues in Access. Little by little I learned all the little quirks and tricks of the software. I never did (and still have not) learned how to program in VBA. The easy to use macros and GUI let me do everything I wanted to do: make forms, run queries, setup tables, produce reports.

What I’ve gleaned over the years is that office IT experts despise people like me with the heat of a thousand suns, because Access can be buggy, it can (especially these days) mean that data is strewn between a few different sources, and because their setup can be very idiosyncratic and difficult to unwind. If your office loses its only Access dork, it can mean that a trove of data is either lost or difficult to retrieve.

And … point taken. For me, a database is like a boot: I love them because I love to customize them to my needs. They fit my data tracking desires in a way that would be a poor fit for anyone else. I’d like to think that my various switchboards and menus are designed in such a way as to be fairly intuitive, but it’s not like they’re user tested. And it’s not like I’m a full-time database manager anymore, either — I’m always trying to find a few minutes here, a few minutes there to customize an application.

On the other hand, if the alternative is to store data for years on end in spreadsheets and Word documents, Access is so much better! Data in a spreadsheet is hard to protect: it’s always a few inattentive clicks away from having only one column in a large table sorted (this is harder than it used to be, but still pretty easy). Access also makes it easier to combine word processing with data: a report or a form can have both tabular data and big, easy-to-read text boxes.

I’m not a software developer — my profession is more like ‘bureaucrat’. I don’t know what alternatives are out there that balance ‘Ease of Use’ with ‘Permanence’ — there are probably a lot of different tools that exist now that I’m unaware of. Please — enlighten me! Because it seems like, every year, Microsoft gets closer and closer to closing it down. At some point, I’ll be forced to stop getting computer upgrades — I’ll be the weird old guy who sits alone in one corner of the office muttering about “the good ol’ days” when a relational database was part of the Office suite.

Here are a few of the oddball things I’ve used Access for over the years:

  • Project Management: this is the big one. I don’t know how other people manage multiple projects and track progress on tasks without Access. I’ve tried to use spreadsheets and it just drives me crazy. Even when I feel completely overwhelmed by my workload, being able to see a nice, clean list of projects and tasks in a database calms me down.
  • Contacts: Outlook contacts? Cell phone address book?! Please. Access is great at managing contacts and you can use it to customize every aspect of contact management, from linking people to individual projects, to developing team lists for quick emails, to tracking conversations with people and making a quick ‘memo to file’ about it.
  • Survey Results: This is one that’ll probably be a distant memory, as online surveys become indispensable, but back in the day a survey was on this stuff called ‘paper’, and to compile the results of a survey, someone had to undertake a tedious data entry process. In a spreadsheet, this is just blah. You can lose track of which record you’re on, which column you’re in, etc. In Access, you can re-create the look of the survey and set up a nice data entry form. So much more civilized! And you can output long-form text in a nice, legible report.
  • Any Large, Relational Dataset: One weird example being the General Transit Feed Specification, which breaks whole transit systems down into a few tables. As I say, I’m not an IT professional or a programmer — I just know what I like. There must, obviously, be some fancy-pants way to put these tables together in another relational database. You can go from a collection of tables to having an understanding of transit timing in a major metropolitan area in a couple of hours.
  • Library Catalog: Okay, I don’t really have, own, or administer a library, per se. And this use of Access might be controversial, because it’s a little on the dumb side. But when I have 50 or 60 electronic documents related to a project or a subject, I use Access to keep them straight. You could do this with a Word document just as easily — but with Access, you don’t need a different Word document for each project, you just need one database. You can make notes on documents, store things like graphs and screenshots, and copy and paste a report’s abstract.

One area that I’ve never mastered, but am always working at, is money management. But Access isn’t as fast or flexible as a spreadsheet program — it can do math, but it’s not happy about it.

At some point, hopefully a few weeks before I retire from my current job, I guess I’ll have to export all the tables in my Access databases so someone else can pick up my lego pieces and build their own thing. But until that gloomy day comes, I intend to go on making my little applications — unless you, gentle reader, have trod this same path and can suggest a suitable, more modern, possibly web-based but certainly free, alternative for me.

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AJ Mastav

Professional planner, unprofessional writer. Member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. Also, a former Sunday School teacher.