Thursday, February 18, 2016

Placeholder Records

I have always recommended against "placehoder" records (with possible exceptions), but someone in the forums recently asked me "why?" So, to explain my reasoning, I have decided to write an article about it.

What is a "placehoder" record?

First, we'll need to define what I consider as placeholder records to help define why I oppose them. To do that, I will try to use some concrete examples of what I consider as placeholder records (other developers may have a different definition of what is a placeholder record).

My definition of placeholder records are records created in advance and stored in the table to represent future records. In other words, these records are created in anticipation of possible records that may or may not be needed in the future. For example, let's say you have a database to track class attendance. If a class will have a total of ten sessions, you might be tempted to create ten records, in advance (at the time of enrollment, for example), per student to make it easier to mark if a student attended each session. They are considered placeholder records because you are creating records to represent future class sessions.

Other examples of potential placeholder records may be found  in booking databases (room and equipment rentals or theater shows to track daily occupancy or usage) or property management databases (apartment or house rentals to track monthly payments).

So, why are they bad?

Well, I probably wouldn't say they are bad but more like unnecessary. Records should only be created when they are needed and not before. For example, if we take the example of the class attendance database, each attendance record should only be created when that particular class session occur. And even then, I would also recommend that you only create records for those in attendance. There's really no need to create records for the absent students, because we can always determine who they are by comparing the list of students from those who attended the class. You can also create a query to show both attendees and absent students as the record source for your form or report.

If you need to produce sequential records for use in a crosstab query or a daily status report, you have the option of using a cartesian product query as presented in an earlier blog article: A practical use of a Cartesian query. That article demonstrates the use of a Tally table, which I also prefer over creating a table of sequential dates.

If you like the convenience of having placeholder records in the table for your data entry forms, that can also be addressed by other methods such as using a temporary table or a multi-select listbox. The user can select all the records to be created from the temporary table or listbox, and then VBA code can be used to actually add those records into the table.


So, to summarize, placeholder records could take up space in the table when it is not actually needed. They don't necessarily violate "normalization" rules, but it's considered best practice to avoid using placeholder records. Hopefully, I have described how the common benefits of creating placeholder records can be easily addressed without actually creating placeholder records.
The next time you hear me tell someone to avoid creating placeholder records, you now know my reasoning behind it. I would like to hear other perspectives on this topic, so please leave a comment to share your thoughts.

Thanks for reading!

Original post date: October 27, 2014

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