This is a guest post courtesy of database design expert and author Tim Dietrich, an honorary Airtable MVP.
The primary column (field) is a concept that many new Airtable users struggle with. In this tech brief, you’ll learn what the primary column is, how it works, and why it is important.
Every Airtable table includes a single primary column. Its purpose is to give users a way to identify a record in the table. This becomes particularly important when relating records.
It’s Not A Primary Key
If you’re familiar with relational database terms, it might seem to you that the primary column is a table’s primary key — but it isn’t. The real primary key is handled behind the scenes by Airtable. Airtable has its own internal record ID that is formatted as an alphanumeric ID, and its value is unique within each database.
It’s Not An Alternate Primary Key
You might also think of the primary column is an alternate primary key. However, it isn’t that, either. It’s entirely possible for a record to contain no value in the primary column. It’s also possible for multiple records to contain the same value. Therefore, it doesn’t meet the requirements that are necessary for it to serve as an alternate primary key.
It’s A Way to Identify and Select Records
The primary column provides an informal way to identify a record in a table. That becomes especially important when you are linking related records.
Airtable’s Internal Record ID
It is possible to see the record IDs that Airtable is using behind the scenes. To do so, create a formula column, and set the formula to RECORD_ID().
One More Thing…
When you’re importing records, Airtable will assign the first column in the file to be the primary column. Therefore, before you import records, make sure that the first column in your file is something that will serve well as the primary column.
[Note: In this version of the post, instances of “Name column” have been replaced with “Primary column.”]