Introduction to SQL


Teaching: 15 min
Exercises: 0 min
  • What is SQL? Why is it significant?

  • to be able to explain what SQL is

What is SQL?

Structured Query Language, or SQL (sometimes pronounced “sequel”), is a powerful language used to interrogate and manipulate relational databases. It is not a general programming language that you can use to write an entire program. However, SQL queries can be called from programming languages to let any program work with databases. There are several different variants of SQL, but all support the same basic statements that we will be covering today.

Relational databases

Relational databases consist of one or more tables of data. These tables have fields (columns) and records (rows). Every field has a data type. Every value in the same field of each record has the same type. These tables can be linked to each other when a field in one table can be matched to a field in another table. SQL queries are the commands that let you look up data in a database or make calculations based on columns.

Why use SQL

Using SQL lets you keep the data separate from the analysis. There is no risk of accidentally changing data when you are analysing it. If the data is changed, a saved query can be re-run to analyse the new data.

SQL is optimised for handling large amounts of data. Data types help quality control of entries - you will receive an error if you try to enter a word into a field that should contain a number. Understanding the nature of relational databases, and using SQL, will help you in using databases in programming languages and in doing similar things using programming languages such as R or Python.

Why are Librarians well suited to SQL?

Librarianship is about information management. We help sort and organise information and we help people find information. Most of us go through mediated queries to help people find the information they need e.g. conducting a search via a library catalogue. With SQL, you can directly construct your database queries without the constraints (e.g. field name or search limitations) imposed by a mediated search interface. Librarians are good at searching information so don’t be afraid – constructing queries using SQL is simply a different and more direct way of finding information.

Database Management Systems

There are a number of different database management systems for working with relational data. We’re going to use SQLite today, but basically everything we teach you will apply to the other database systems as well (e.g., MySQL, PostgreSQL, MS Access, Filemaker Pro). The only things that will differ are the details of exactly how to import and export data and possibly some differences in datatype.

Database Design

Introduction to SQLite Manager

Let’s all open the database we downloaded in SQLite Manager by clicking on the open file icon.

You can see the tables in the database by looking at the left hand side of the screen under Tables.

To see the contents of a table, click on that table and then click on the Browse and search tab in the right hand section of the screen.

If we want to write a query, we click on the Execute SQL tab.

Dataset Description

The data we will be using is a catalogue of journal articles from 51 different journals published during 2015. Articles are published in different languages, by different publishers and under different licences.


  1. Download the CSV files from Figshare
  2. Start a New Database Database -> New Database
  3. Start the import Database -> Import
  4. Select the file to import (start with articles.csv)
  5. Give the table a name that matches the file name (articles, journals, licences, languages publishers), or use the default
  6. Since the first row has column headings, check the “First row contains column names”- box
  7. Under “Fields separated by”, check “Comma”. Ensure ‘Ignore trailing Separator/Delimiter’ is left unchecked.
  8. Also, under “Fields enclosed by”, ensure that “Double quotes if necessary” is left checked.
  9. Press OK
  10. When asked if you want to modify the table, click OK
  11. Set the data types for each field: choose TEXT for fields with text: (Title, Authors, DOI, URL, Subjects, ISSNs, Citation, First_Author), and INTEGER for fields with numbers: (id, LanguageId, LicenceId, Citation_Count, Author_Count, Day, Month, Year).
  12. Click OK

You can also use this same approach to append new data to an existing table.

Adding data to existing tables

  1. Browse & Search -> Add
  2. Enter data into a csv file and append

Data types

Data type Description
CHARACTER(n) Character string. Fixed-length n
VARCHAR(n) or CHARACTER VARYING(n) Character string. Variable length. Maximum length n
BINARY(n) Binary string. Fixed-length n
BOOLEAN Stores TRUE or FALSE values
VARBINARY(n) or BINARY VARYING(n) Binary string. Variable length. Maximum length n
INTEGER(p) Integer numerical (no decimal).
SMALLINT Integer numerical (no decimal).
INTEGER Integer numerical (no decimal).
BIGINT Integer numerical (no decimal).
DECIMAL(p,s) Exact numerical, precision p, scale s.
NUMERIC(p,s) Exact numerical, precision p, scale s. (Same as DECIMAL)
FLOAT(p) Approximate numerical, mantissa precision p. A floating number in base 10 exponential notation.
REAL Approximate numerical
FLOAT Approximate numerical
DOUBLE PRECISION Approximate numerical
DATE Stores year, month, and day values
TIME Stores hour, minute, and second values
TIMESTAMP Stores year, month, day, hour, minute, and second values
INTERVAL Composed of a number of integer fields, representing a period of time, depending on the type of interval
ARRAY A set-length and ordered collection of elements
MULTISET A variable-length and unordered collection of elements
XML Stores XML data

SQL Data Type Quick Reference

Different databases offer different choices for the data type definition.

The following table shows some of the common names of data types between the various database platforms:

Data type Access SQLServer Oracle MySQL PostgreSQL
boolean Yes/No Bit Byte N/A Boolean
integer Number (integer) Int Number Int / Integer Int / Integer
float Number (single) Float / Real Number Float Numeric
currency Currency Money N/A N/A Money
string (fixed) N/A Char Char Char Char
string (variable) Text (<256) / Memo (65k+) Varchar Varchar / Varchar2 Varchar Varchar
binary object OLE Object Memo Binary (fixed up to 8K) Varbinary (<8K) Image (<2GB) Long Raw Blob Text Binary Varbinary

Key Points

  • SQL is a powerful language used to interrogate and manipulate relational databases