Can anyone recommend a simple relational database software (not Access!)?


I am posting to ask for suggestions for a freeware, easy to use multi-relational database program I can use in association with Zotero and generally in my research.

I am a newbie with a background in social science and history. I am trying to adapt Zotero to how historians and social scientists take notes and organize their research.

I plan to create a relational database to store my Zotero tags and probably a few other references I will be inputting into Zotero.

I have a copy of MS Access, but do not like it. I think it is more for writing programs to routinely manage complex database like inventories. I want an on-the-fly database software program. I find Access very cumbersome for one-off queries. I also do not want to adapt the Excel database function to my needs.

I fondly remember Database IV for Windows. Unfortunately, I threw my copy out years ago and prefer to use freeware when I can. Something like it would probably be ideal

So, if you could recommend a free, intuitive, simple, drop & drag, WYSIWYG database software for simple table linking and SQL queries I would be very grateful.

I have done some Googling for possible candidates, but there are quite a few. It would take quite a while to install and test them to find the best one.

Here are the links to possible candidates for those who might also be looking for easy to use database software:

My thanks in advance for you comments, advice and suggestions.
  • It is not quite what you are asking for, and obviously the relevance of this depends on precisely what you want to do, but I have used Airtable as database replacement when working with students (it is a web app with good collaboration futures).

    If you are on a Mac you might also want to look at Devonthink. Technically not a relational database but it is quite powerful and might work.
  • edited March 25, 2019
    Emiliano wrote a Seektable export translator recently at my request:

    This works well to export data to a CSV table which can then be imported to Seektable:

    From there you can do pivot tables and other searches surrounding your tags and other fields.

    If you are looking to do something more advanced, as a private project Emiliano also wrote a sync utility to output an entire Zotero library to Postgres SQL. I can share further details if you are interested.

    I am planning to soon release a beta version of a website which will incorporate Zotero, MySQL, Postgre SQL, and other software to organize the literatue of medicine. If you are interested in participating to extend that to the humanities, contact me (my login name is my email) and I would be glad to discuss this further.
  • I don't think I've seen MS Access described as fit for "writing programs to routinely manage complex database" before.

    Even though my first reflex is usually to seek out open source solutions, I would not recommend LibreOffice base. I find it to be less usable than even MS Access (and that's saying something), and you're either stuck using the internal HBase (written in Java, if you want to interact with it, you're looking at Java programming), or an as of yet very unstable implementation of Firebase support (an otherwise very capable database).
  • Thanks for your quick responses and suggestions. My apologies for my dilatory response, but I have been researching Zotero, the better to reply.

    Regarding the web-based database software, I should have stated that I do not like to use the cloud or web-based software for security reasons. I prefer to keep everything on my desktop. That goes for the database software I am looking for as well.

    I am looking for a desktop database program to keep track of my Zotero database. I am still thinking how I should structure my Zotero database. I will need, for example, to keep track of the tags I create and whatever data I record in the related field.

    I am presently grappling with two major issues. Firstly, how to structure my Zotero database by note items rather than by citations. My impression is that Zotero is oriented more towards recording citations that have notes rather than notes that have bibliographical references. Perhaps I am conceptually unable to make the leap from index cards to digital databases.

    For a fuller explanation of what I mean, see the addendum to this response.

    Secondly, if I should structure my Zotero database with tags or with sub collections or some combination thereof. My impression is that they are something of
    alternatives with the possibility that sub collections could quickly become very unwieldy.

    I have extensively Googled these issues without too much success. The notes versus citation issue was extensively discussed over a decade ago in the Zotero forum. I imagine that since then the ability of Zotero to handle notes has greatly improved.

    I do not want to reinvent the wheel, so I am thinking of putting a post on the forum asking how members have structured their Zotero databases around notes rather than citations.

    As to my description of MS Access as for "writing programs to routinely manage complex database". I was trying to say that Access seems oriented towards writing programs in visual basic to manage and analyze databases. I found it cumbersome and time consuming compared to Dbase IV for a one-off analysis of a database.

    Thanks again for your suggestions and comments. I very much appreciate them, as I will anything you might have to say in response to my reply.


    I am, for example, planning to write various pieces on the voluminous works of Karl Marx. One article will be on his view of post capitalist society. Another will address his various accounts of class. Still another will explain that his belief that capitalists exploited proletarians did not rest on his theory of value.

    I do not think it makes sense to structure my Zotero database by the various books that Marx wrote (Capital, Grundrisse, Civil Wars in France, etc.). Instead, I want to structure my Marx data by either subject (‘class’, ‘value’, ‘surplus value’, ‘landlord class’, ‘servant class’, “creative labor”, “Milton” etc.) or, perhaps the articles I intend to write (thought I am skeptical of this approach).

    Fortunately, a historian long ago suggested how to structure Zotero by subject rather than citation. (See:

    My understanding of his suggestion is to rely exclusively on notes and have only one citation collection. All the individual item notes from a book or article would be related to the item citation through the ‘related’ field of both the item note and the item citation.

    More concretely, I would have a single bibliography as a collection (named ‘bibliography’). The entry that would appear in the related field in both the item citations in the bibliography collection and the note item would use the ‘short title’ form of referencing a source e.g. Jones [1975], Jones, A [1975] (if there are two articles/books etc. by authors names Jones in 1975). (See:

    I would, for example, have a citation item for Capital, Volume I, Karl Marx, 1859 etc. In the related field of this citation item would be, Marx, Capital [1859]. In a collection labelled 'Marx' I would have item notes with first lines reading, say, Surplus Value p. 85, Capitalists qua capitalists do not work pp. 44-45, Value equals price (for purposes of exposition) p. 98. In the related fields of each of these item notes would be Marx, Capital [1859].

    I have yet to fully explore the possibilities of the Zotero ‘related’ field to see how feasible this is.
  • If a Mac is an option, Devonthink is an excellent match for your description of a local note-oriented database which can also track citations:

  • Hi,

    Thanks for your help and advice. I very much appreciate it.

    I've started using Apache Open Office Base. So far it seems to be dong the trick.

    As for my plan to structure my Zotero database solely with notes (outlined) above), I've moved away from that. I'm now thinking of a combination of collections, sub collections and item notes, mostly relying on citations within collections, with these collections being organized by the articles I plan to write.

    What I am wrestling with is a) not getting too many sub collections b) the tag hierarchy problem which has been much discussed on this forum

    Thanks again for your suggestions and comments
  • I’d recommend switching to LibreOffice Base. Development of Open Office is basically dead, and LibreOffice has replaced it.
  • Interesting - can you use Symphytum to access the Zotero database?
  • I don't know. I am a basic user of personal databases.
  • You absolutely do not want to edit the Zotero database using tools that are not Zotero BTW. Zotero has expectations in place for how the database changes and you could well end up with a database Zotero could not safely load again.
  • OK thanks Emliano
  • Thanks for all your comments and suggestions. I very much appreciate them.

    I first tried Apache Open Office and then switched to LibreOffice Base when I learned that Apache Open Office had suspended further development. Unfortunately, Base did not seem to have all the menu features that I needed that MS Access did. I don't want to write scripts.

    I've looked at quite a few other database products including Symphytum which got a poor review here:

    I ended up where I didn't want to: back to MS Access. The worst thing was it kept crashing on me. I had to reinstall MS Office and then do a Windows 10 reinstall that left my programs/apps and files unaffected. Even after that, Access kept crashing when I invoked certain wizards. After searching through the Windows event viewer and running scan now Dism etc. I finally seem to have Access working. Wish me luck!

    I now have a database to keep track of my tags.

    The last thing I need is a software program that will display my collections and sub collections (I'm still having trouble conceptualizing/visualizing this) as tree diagrams.
    Genealogy/family tree software might be adaptable. MS PowerPoint allows for tree-like organization structures, but they are limited to the size of a slide. I could probably customize something in MS Excel. A purpose built software would still be preferable.

    I'd be interested to know how other Zotero users keep a balance between sub folders and tags. I can see it would be very easy to run wild with sub collections and soon find yourself with a collection that is ten deep and twenty wide at its deepest.

    I've perused quite a few discussions of the collections/sub collections vs tags issue (e.g., The problem with deep tree structures seems to be writing the searches to generate the Various Zotero outputs. The advantage of deep tree structures is they are easy to organize and visualize. Tags on the other hand seem to rely a lot more on memory.

    Anyway, any thoughts or advice on this issue would be welcome.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and suggestions.

    Final comment: yes it is probably a very good idea not to edit your Zotero database in another database program and then import it back into Zotero. After forty years of using computers I know one thing: computers are very 'picky'.
  • I'm a public service Librarian (know enough to know what I want, but don't program)

    1) So can I use an MS Access to populate a Zotero interface? OR
    2) Allow collaborators to alter Zotero Bibliographic data and link it with other tables like the publisher contact, location fields, and status of the title?

    Thank you
  • 1) Not with any existing tools, no. Might be scriptable, but probably not easily.
    2) Also not with any existing tools. There are workarounds and again, probably scriptable solutions, but nothing that would be easy to use.
  • I don't know if this addresses your question, but it does speak to how to interact with your research references that you acquire with Zotero. I have been a FileMaker developer for a little over 25 years and at the age of 62 I entered a Ph.D. program and began to ask many of the same questions you have regarding how to manage your reference data. I though sure FileMaker would work, as it has the ability to import and export most data formats and is far more intuitive than MS Access and it is a true RDBMS both at the desktop level and as client/server.

    HOWEVER, I also found I did not actually need a relational database as I really only needed to capture the data and the underlying reference .pdf add a few fields for my personal notes and compositions and VOILA. I discovered that I could do everything I need to do (Import my entire Zotero collection, via export to .csv, import from .csv, with Symphytum which is a simplistic desktop database (not relational at all) and I had everyting I needed upon initial import with one exception. The underlying file (.pdf) is listed as a file address and the Field Type is 'file attachment' I created a new field for the file under Field Type 'file list' and then as I entered or imported additional records I wold copy the file address (can be more than one) from the 'file attachment' field and paste it into the 'file list' field.

    The benefit of doing this is that from within the record, where you might be entering notes or compositions you can double click the 'file list':file name and it will open onscreen with acrobat reader (or whatever pdf reader you use) This allows you to stay in the record wile brining up the original document. One notable difference between using FileMaker vs Symphytum for a simple (non-relational) database is that Symphytum works on Windows, Apple and Linux. FileMaker only works on Apple and Windows. For Linus users Symphytum is in the software repository for most distributions
  • One additional comment about Symphytum. You do not need to build or preconfigure the database. Simply import the .csv file you exported from Zotero. Symphytum will use the same field names and field contents
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