This lesson is in the early stages of development (Alpha version)

Basic Queries


Teaching: 30 min
Exercises: 5 min
  • How do I write a basic query in SQL?

  • Write and build queries.

  • Filter data given various criteria.

  • Sort the results of a query.

Writing my first query

Let’s start by using the eebo table. Here we have data on every title that is included in the catalogue.

Let’s write an SQL query that selects only the year column from the surveys table. SQL queries can be written in the box located under the “Execute SQL” tab. Click ‘Run SQL’ to execute the query in the box.

FROM eebo;

We have capitalized the words SELECT and FROM because they are SQL keywords. SQL is case insensitive, but it helps for readability, and is good style.

If we want more information, we can just add a new column to the list of fields, right after SELECT:

FROM eebo;

Or we can select all of the columns in a table using the wildcard *

FROM eebo;

Limiting results

Sometimes you don’t want to see all the results you just want to get a sense of of what’s being returned. In that case you can use the LIMIT command. In particular you would want to do this if you were working with large databases.

FROM eebo
LIMIT 10; 

Unique values

If we want only the unique values so that we can quickly see what authors have been cataloged we use DISTINCT

FROM eebo;

If we select more than one column, then the distinct pairs of values are returned

FROM eebo;

Calculated values

We can also do calculations with the values in a query. For example, if we wanted to look at the number of pages associated with different dates, but we needed to know how many tens of pages we would use

SELECT Date, PageCount/10
FROM eebo;

When we run the query, the expression pages / 10 is evaluated for each row and appended to that row, in a new column. If we used the INTEGER data type for the pages field then integer division would have been done, to obtain the correct results in that case divide by 10.0. Expressions can use any fields, any arithmetic operators (+, -, *, and /) and a variety of built-in functions. For example, we could round the values to make them easier to read.

SELECT TCP, title, ROUND(pages / 10, 2)
FROM eebo;


  • Write a query that returns the year, EEBO and page length


Databases can also filter data – selecting only the data meeting certain criteria. For example, let’s say we only want data for the titles that have a free status. We need to add a WHERE clause to our query:

FROM eebo
WHERE status='Free';

We can do the same thing with numbers. Here, we only want the data since 1640:

FROM eebo
WHERE date >= '1600';

If we used the TEXT data type for the year the WHERE clause should be Date >= '1600'. We can use more sophisticated conditions by combining tests with AND and OR. For example, suppose we want the data on Free status starting in the year 1600:

FROM catalogue
WHERE (date >= '1600') AND (status = 'Free');

Note that the parentheses are not needed, but again, they help with readability. They also ensure that the computer combines AND and OR in the way that we intend.


  • Produce a table listing the data for all titles in the catalogue with a page length more than 75, telling us the date, TCP id code, and page.

Building more complex queries

Now, lets combine the above queries to get data for 2 authors from the year 1580 on. This time, let’s use IN as one way to make the query easier to understand. It is equivalent to saying `WHERE (author = ‘Aylett, Robert, 1583-1655?’) OR (author = ‘Bacon, Francis, 1561-1626.’), but reads more neatly:

FROM eebo
WHERE (date >= '1580') AND (author IN ('Aylett, Robert, 1583-1655?', 'Bacon, Francis, 1561-1626.'));

We started with something simple, then added more clauses one by one, testing their effects as we went along. For complex queries, this is a good strategy, to make sure you are getting what you want. Sometimes it might help to take a subset of the data that you can easily see in a temporary database to practice your queries on before working on a larger or more complicated database.

When the queries become more complex, it can be useful to add comments. In SQL, comments are started by --, and end at the end of the line. For example, a commented version of the above query can be written as:

-- Get post 1580 data on authors
-- These are in the catalogue table, and we are interested in all columns
-- Sampling year is in the column `Date`, and we want to include after 1580
WHERE (date >= '1580')
-- Author names
AND (author IN ('Aylett, Robert, 1583-1655?', 'Bacon, Francis, 1561-1626.'));

Although SQL queries often read like plain English, it is always useful to add comments; this is especially true of more complex queries.


We can also sort the results of our queries by using ORDER BY. For simplicity, let’s go back to the catalogue table and order by publication date.

First, let’s look at what’s in the catalogue table. It’s a table of the eebo catalogue id and the information for each id.

FROM eebo;

Now let’s order it by date.

FROM eebo

The keyword ASC tells us to order it in Ascending order. We could alternately use DESC to get descending order.

FROM eebo

ASC is the default.

We can also sort on several fields at once. To truly be alphabetical, we might want to order by date then author.

FROM eebo
ORDER BY Date ASC, Author ASC;


  • Write a query that returns year, TCP id, and page from the catalogue table, sorted with the largest page lengths at the top.

Order of execution

Another note for ordering. We don’t actually have to display a column to sort by it. For example, let’s say we want to order an author by the EEBO index, but we only want to see genus and species.

SELECT Title, Terms
FROM eebo
WHERE author = 'Bacon, Francis, 1561-1626.'

We can do this because sorting occurs earlier in the computational pipeline than field selection.

The computer is basically doing this:

  1. Filtering rows according to WHERE
  2. Sorting results according to ORDER BY
  3. Displaying requested columns or expressions.

Clauses are written in a fixed order: SELECT, FROM, WHERE, then ORDER BY. It is possible to write a query as a single line, but for readability, we recommend to put each clause on its own line.


  • Let’s try to combine what we’ve learned so far in a single query. Using the catalogue table write a query to display the title, terms field and the page length (rounded to two decimal places), for titles published in 1550, ordered alphabetically by the author.
  • Write the query as a single line, then put each clause on its own line, and see how more legible the query becomes!

Key Points

  • It is useful to apply conventions when writing SQL queries to aid readability.

  • Use logical connectors such as AND or OR to create more complex queries.

  • Calculations using mathematical symbols can also be performed on SQL queries.

  • Adding comments in SQL helps keep complex queries understandable.