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What exactly is a shapefile in ArcGIS, and how is it related to a database or a layer file. What are the differences between these 3 things?

marked as duplicate by PolyGeo Jul 28 '15 at 21:44

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A shapefile is a simple, nontopological format for storing the geometric location and attribute information of geographic features. Geographic features in a shapefile can be represented by points, lines, or polygons (areas). The workspace containing shapefiles may also contain dBASE tables, which can store additional attributes that can be joined to a shapefile's features. It is worth noting that shapefiles have no relation to databases, rather when shapefile features are added to a database they are transformed into database rows, which have no direct relationship to the source feature.

In comparison to a shapefile, a layer file is a just a link\reference to actual data, such as a shapefile, feature class, etc. It is not actual data because it does not store the data's attributes or geometry. A layer file primarily stores the symbology for a feature and other layer properties related to what is seen when the data is viewed in a GIS application.

A database is where you can store the collections of data that the GIS software can pull from to recall information stored within it when needed. Databases often have various ways to retrieve information stored within them.

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    Since this is a place where folks get tripped up, I'd recommend that you mention that shapefiles have no relation to databases, and that when shapefile features are added to a database they are transformed into database rows, which have no practical relationship to the source feature. – Vince Jul 28 '15 at 15:15
  • Since there may be a "practical" relationship (based on attribute keys), I'm going to tweak that to "direct". – Vince Jul 28 '15 at 15:27
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    @RandomUser The technical white paper for the data structure of a shapefile was published by ESRI in 1998 (making it open-source domain), which is why QGIS and many other open-source GIS platforms can decipher them (as opposed to GDBs and feature classes, which are still proprietary). Everything you need to know about shapefiles! Here's the link: esri.com/library/whitepapers/pdfs/shapefile.pdf – John Jul 28 '15 at 16:08

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