How to Build an Efficient Reference Library in Airtable

Research-backed content is in demand. Here’s how to organize your references efficiently and save time.

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Whether you’re working for a company that’s under regulatory scrutiny from government bodies or you want to make your research process more efficient, consider using Airtable to organize your references. 

This system could be helpful for you or your company if you:

  • Are required to keep meticulous records for audits.
  • Use the same sources repeatedly.
  • Need to remember every place a reference is used in case the link breaks and needs to be updated.

If any of these sound like you, the following tutorial is how to set up the best method I’ve found to manage references for efficient research of those science-backed articles — and it’ll make your auditor sing.

If setting this system up seems overwhelming and you just want to get started, I’ve got you! Jump to the free Reference Library template I created; you only need a free Airtable account to get started. I do hope you’ll try creating it on your own though; in exploring the system, you may discover other ways that Airtable could improve your workflows — I sure did!

Airtable terminology

  • Base = Short for database and refers to each individual Airtable. Spreadsheet equivalent: Workbook or an individual spreadsheet file that contains one or more worksheets
  • Table = Accessed using the tabs at the top of the base. Spreadsheet equivalent: Sheet or worksheet, the tabs at the bottom of a spreadsheet
  • Record = Row
  • Field = Column (I use these interchangeably)

All screenshots were taken by me of my Reference Library.

But wait, why should I organize my resources?

I work for a company that 1) produces a lot of content and 2) is under regulatory control by government agencies because we sell a medical device. If we’re audited, we have to provide evidence to support every claim we make on the website or any collateral.

When I started at my company, these references were kept in a spreadsheet with a bunch of tabs that had no consistency or order. The same reference appeared in the spreadsheet multiple times, and no information was recorded about how that reference supported our claim or even what claim it was supporting. To find anything, we had check each tab and often re-read the source material to figure any of this out. We frequently use the same sources for multiple documents, and every time I had to search for a reference, the process offended my sensibilities.

Tasked with setting up a better way, I created this reference organization system in Airtable that allows us to:

  • Quickly find and reuse the reference of common claims.
  • Link the source to content or collateral in which it is cited to easily make updates when necessary.
  • Use tags and sort by topic or type to find what we’re looking for.
  • Attach a PDF of the paper or article in case the link is removed by the original source.
  • Easily use consistent citation style (AP, MLA, etc.) for copy-pasting the reference list at the end of each blog.

Even though no outside party is regulating my own blog, I use the same format to manage references for the same reasons we use this for the team at work: to stay organize, save time when reusing sources, and general CYA.

Setting up

To set up your very own Reference Library, sign up for Airtable if you don’t already have an account. Please note that this guide shows how to set up this Reference Library specifically and does not cover some of the very basics of Airtable, like details of all the different field types. For that, I recommend Introduction to Airtable bases on from Airtable Support.

Table 1: References

This first table will be where all the individual references are stored. Each reference should only appear once in this table.

Figure 1
  1. In your account, click the plus sign above Add a new base.
Figure 2

2.Type a name for your base, then select a color and a fun icon if you want. (I went with the obvious. Don’t judge me.)

Figure 3
  1. In the top left of your base, click the down arrow to rename your table. I named my first table References, but you can name yours whatever you like.

New bases automatically have 3 pre-populated fields: Name, Notes, Attachments

  • Name = single line text field
  • Notes = long text field, allows some formatting, line breaks, etc.
  • Attachments = file attachments
  1. Rename the Name field to Title, and rename the Notes field to Summary. Keep the Attachment field as is or rename it, if desired.
  2. Click the plus sign to the right of the last column in the table to add a new field (Figure 3).
  3. Type in the name of the new column and select the field type from the list that appears in the dropdown. Repeat this process to add the following fields (the field types in parenthesis and a brief explanation of the field’s usage follows each):
    • Link (URL): Link to the original source
    • Tags (multi-select): Create tags to sort references by topic, if desired
    • Type (single select): Add source types (medical, peer-reviewed, etc.), if desired
  1. Add a long text field and name it Citations or include the style if you’re sharing the base with others; I named mine APA Citations. If you’re going to copy these into blogs and want them to be hyperlinked to the source, enable rich text formatting by clicking the switch next to that option and then clicking the Save button (Figure 4).
Figure 4

If desired, you can sort the entire contents of the table by Citation. Click the Sort button at the top of the table and select the Citation field. When you have a long list of references, this makes them easier to find if you know the author’s last name. Sorting this way also helps you catch duplicates if multiple people are adding to the table. Airtable bases can also be searched, though, so sorting isn’t necessary if you know what you’re looking for.

You can also drag and drop the columns to change the order in which they appear.

Table 2: Instances

The second table is where each instance of the references will live. References may appear here multiple times if it’s used in different articles or books. For example, I may use a reference multiple times in the same blog to support different claims, so I will record each instance separately.

  1. In the upper left, click the plus sign next to the name of your first table to add a new table (Figure 5).
Figure 5
  1. Name the second table. I call mine Instances.
  2. You’ll again have the standard 3 fields already created (Name, Notes, Attachments). Create new or rename existing fields so you end up with the following fields:
    • Footnote (single line text): Your identifying number for the usage. If you use the same reference for multiple claims, you’ll probably want this number to show that. More about this in the next section.
    • Claim (long text): Your claim or statement
    • Supporting Statement (long text): Information in the source that supports your claim
    • Article (linked to References table): Connected to the References table and allows you to select from your list or search for the title of the reference used. This is why you need to add any new references to the References table before adding any new instances.
    • Author (lookup linked to Citation field in References table): When you create the Article field as a linked field type, Airtable will automatically pop up a window to add lookup fields. Click the switch next to Citation to turn it on and automatically add this field (Figure 6). 
Figure 6
  1. Go back to your References table and look for the field that was automatically created by Airtable when the linked record was created; it’ll have the same name as your second table. Click the down arrow in the top of that column to rename the field, and rename it something useful so you know what the link is used for months later. 
    • If you don’t need to see what records are linked on this table, you can click Hide fields and toggle that field to be hidden.

Bonus tables

In my Reference Library, I created two simple tables to keep track of common disclaimers I use in blogs and all my affiliate links so I don’t have to search for them each time I want to use them.

Disclaimers: The Disclaimers table is just 2 fields to organize the disclaimer name or category (field type: single line text) and the actual text of the disclaimer that I copy and paste into the blog (field type: long text). For example, the disclaimer that appears at the top of this story looks like this in my Reference Library:

Figure 7

Affiliates: I have several affiliate relationships and want to be able to access my links quickly without having to sign into my accounts every time I want to add the link to a blog. I created a table with the following fields: Name, Link, Offer, and Payment. This allows me to quickly add affiliate links to my content if needed, and I know the details of the relationship at a glance. Having this at my fingertips means I know quickly what offer to write to the readers if I’m using the link. I imagine when my affiliate program is built out, I’ll need something more robust, but this is good enough for now.

Fig 8

Pro tip: To make the records display more text, click the Row Height button in the top toolbar (pictured on the left).

Branding: I added a table for HEX codes for the colors I use frequently. This was as simply as adding a new table and creating a column for the HEX code and attachment. Since I’m using colors that are in the same family, I use the attachment to store a photo so I can quickly see which color I want. Then I don’t have to remember what I called which code.

Figure 9

Too much work? Here’s a template of my Reference Library!

Once you access the base using the button below, click the down arrow next to the base name, and click Duplicate base to make it your own and start adding data.

Using the base

To add a new reference

Fill in all the fields for your reference in the Reference table first.

Pro tip: If multiple people will be adding references, you may want to consider creating a form to make the process easier, especially if they are not comfortable with traditional data entry. To create a form, click Views if it’s not already open, then in the lower left corner, click Form to create a new view.

Figure 10

The Summary field is meant to be a brief description of that reference so you can skim this field to find the reference that makes the point you need.

You can hyperlink in the rich text Citation field, which makes copying and pasting them to your blogs even faster and easier. If you don’t hyperlink in your reference list or only cite in the body of your blog, don’t spend time hyperlinking the Citation field.

Figure 11

If you want to be able to sort or filter by topic, I recommend creating and using tags for your references. This way, if you write about a few topics, you can use the same sources for related articles. You can create new tags by typing them directly into the field as you’re entering data or by using the dropdown menu of the column and clicking Customize field type. This will show the list of existing tags and allow you to add, delete, or rename them.

If you want to include a PDF of the reference, you can drag and drop the file into the row or you can click the attachment column, then click the plus sign that appears and select your file from there.

To add a new instance

Go into your Instances tab and type in your footnote number.

The Footnote field is sort of like the footnote in a document. If you are only tracking one document, like a book, you can use a straightforward numbering system. Airtable has an autonumber field you could utilize, but the caveat is that deleting a record using autonumber doesn’t update the numbers. That is, if you have references 1–10 then delete #5, your records will be still be numbered 1–10, even though you only have 9 records without that fifth one.

If you have multiple documents that use the same numbers for references, you’ll need a way to delineate which 1 or 2 is referencing which source for which content. In my Reference Library, I track multiple blogs with numbered references starting at 1, so I can’t use single numbers in the Instances table.

To solve this, I assign each blog a number and then refer to the blog’s references within that number, and since I also track affiliate links, I indicate what kind of link it is in the code. So for blog ID 3, my Footnote column might be 3-REF1, 3-REF2, 3-AFF1, etc. (If you choose to use a sort of code like this, you can partially automate that in Airtable too, but that’s for another blog.)

Figure 12

If assigning ID numbers doesn’t make sense for your content, you could use the content name or whatever you like. My company used to use the author’s last name, but that got messy quickly since we used the name multiple times (Smith-1, Smith-2, etc.), then it got really confusing when we used different papers from the same author (2001-Smith-1, 2012-Smith-8). That’s why I number my blogs and number the references.

Type or copy the claim you’re making into the Claim column, then add the supporting statement or paragraph from the reference in the Supporting Statement column.

In the Article column, start typing the title of the reference, and Airtable will populate a list based on what you type. The Author field will automatically populate when the article is selected since it’s a look-up field.

Reap the benefits

In your Reference table, you can scroll to the linked field to see a list of where that source is used, or if you hover over any record, you’ll see an expand icon appear next to the record number. Click that icon to see a different view of the entire record; the linked field will show you all the places where that reference appears (Figure 13). This method makes updating resources in researched content super efficient because you don’t have to manually track them.

Figure 13

You can also access this view if you are in the Instances table and double-click the title of the reference in the Article column.

Closing thoughts

Using this Reference Library, I am able to streamline our research and writing processes with multiple freelance writers, and the team feels confident about our next audit thanks to these records. But this system would probably be best for those who want to keep meticulous records of sources. If you’re casually using references here and there, using this may not save you time between the initial setup and maintenance.

You can also use this as a starting place to customize it to your own process and maximize efficiency. For example, I used the title of the article or paper as the primary field for the Airtable, but you can use the author if that makes more sense. You could also have one base with the references and content in different tables; that would allow you to link the references directly to the blogs, which would mean no more footnote codes.

My Reference Library barely scratches the surface of what Airtable can do for your organization and procedures. I use it in many more ways than this, and it has improved the way I work and even how I manage my household. Give it a try!

Photo by Valdemaras D. on Unsplash

Teena Merlan