Copying and moving rows between tables in PostgreSQL

In this article, I’ll show some helpful tips for copying and moving data between database tables in PostgreSQL.

Copying

The simplest operation is copying rows from one table to another table. The associated SQL query is known to most. You can simply combine an INSERT with a SELECT:

INSERT INTO short_books
  SELECT *
    FROM books
    WHERE pages < 50;

Of course, if you want to copy a complete table, you must first create the target table with the same columns. Instead of just repeating the original CREATE TABLE with all the column definitions with a different name, there is a shortcut in the form of CREATE TABLE … LIKE.

CREATE TABLE books_copy (LIKE books);

If you want the copy to inherit all constraints, indices and defaults of the source table you can add INCLUDING ALL:

CREATE TABLE books_copy (LIKE books INCLUDING ALL);

Instead of executing a CREATE TABLE first and then an INSERT, you can also directly combine CREATE TABLE with a SELECT:

CREATE TABLE books_copy AS
  SELECT * FROM books;

Moving

The direct method of moving specific rows from one table to another table is a bit less known. You can of course first copy the rows into the target table and then delete the rows from the source table. However, this is also possible with just one statement, in one go. To do this, you need to know the RETURNING clause. It can be appended to a DELETE or UPDATE statement and causes the affected rows to be returned as the result set after the respective action:

DELETE FROM books
  WHERE pages < 50
  RETURNING
    title, author, pages;

This can be used in combination with the WITH … AS clause to move rows between tables with just one SQL statement:

WITH selection AS (
  DELETE FROM books
  WHERE pages < 50
  RETURNING *
)
INSERT INTO short_books
  SELECT * FROM selection;

The function of WITH can be thought of as defining a named temporary view that can only be used in the current statement.

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