An Introduction to Organizing Your SharePoint Document Library

An organization's SharePoint Document Library can be organized according to these three methods, each having its own benefits and drawbacks.

By Cathy Dew

(This post was originally published on June 20, 2016 and has been revised and updated.)

SharePoint’s feature growth since its inception in 2001 tends to mask the most basic and powerful function the application provides, document management. At its core, SharePoint has always helped you manage your files either personally, within your team or department, and especially corporate wide.

And the foundational framework for document management is SharePoint’s Document Library. At its most simple form, the Document Library is just a place to store your files. But there are powerful features that enhance and extend the file management tools available within SharePoint that make SharePoint one of the most cost effective tools for file collaboration, tracking and life cycle management.

For these blog posts, the first of three parts, we’ll start with the simplest file organization features of the SharePoint Document Library and in later posts we’ll scale up and outline progressively more complex organizational features.

Looking for complex SharePoint Document Management Articles?

SharePoint is the Document Library expert. To learn the fundamentals, check out our topic page "SharePoint Document Libraries: The very heart of the SharePoint experience."

Organizing Your SharePoint Document Library

To start your journey towards understanding what a SharePoint Document Library and provide for you, Microsoft provides a basic introduction and a walk through a document library that will give you an outline of how to get around a document library. Building on that, today we’ll highlight three building blocks for document and file organization: Folders, Meta Data, and Content Types.


Everyone already understands folders. They are the only way to organize files on your local or networked file system, and SharePoint folders are always the first thing people create after they get access to a new Document Library and right before moving any files over to SharePoint. Precisely how you design the folder structure is up to you. An industrial company with multiple service categories might mirror those categories in their folder structure. Other businesses might break the document library by client or by primary file category—invoices in one folder, articles in another, etc. Security within the library can be controlled via the Library, Folder, or Document level. However, when you want to setup permissions differently than from the parent SharePoint Site you are required to break inheritance and build a new security model for the target Library / Folder / Document. When you are running SharePoint via Office365, breaking inheritance more than once in a Library and Folder chain is not recommended and, in fact, is highly discouraged. (Need a reminder to put a link to our new blog “SharePoint Security: Breaking Inheritance – Just because you can doesn’t mean you should”.) You should always remember that when you wish to provide access to a specific library or folder, the target users must have at least Visitor access rights to the Parent Site Collection, all the way down through to the parent site of the document library.

Folders are document management comfort food; they are familiar, friendly, and while initially satisfying there is a period of regret if there is any over indulgence.  Over time folder structures can become highly personal, and the competing pressures within a team or project environment can lead to friction on where and how to organize files.

Additionally, because of their simplicity and because you have 100% control of the folder structure, folders can become highly over utilized and nested worse than a gopher’s tunnel system. Folders only provide a single dimension of document organization and unless your folder structure is highly intuitive it can become hard to find files over time as the numbers of documents in your library grows. Finding and storing files that match multiple folder criteria can become increasingly painful.


When you have grown tired of trying to find and organize your documents you are ready for Managed Metadata. Managed Metadata is the next step in document management and allows you to sort and view your documents in multiple dimensions giving you a much wider variety and scope for document management. Microsoft provides a good introduction to SharePoint’s Managed Metadata features. We’ll focus today on the single most powerful feature – Managed Metadata Columns. Instead of choosing ”where” to store your documents, you can “tag” each of your files with all the categories of information that are important to your project / team, immediately giving you multiple dimensions of information about each of your documents.

To use Metadata with your documents you need to add new columns to your  document library and assign them selectable values. When new documents are added, the document creator or editor selects the appropriate value(s) for each custom column. Then, using a custom view, you can sort the documents in your document library based on your selected criteria. Therefore, if you need to find all of the files for a particular client, you can filter that based on  themetadata column that assigns the document with your Client’s name. Or if you need to find all of your invoices, regardless of client, you can filter by your invoice (document type metadata) category.

Additionally, searching becomes more powerful with you have metadata columns assigned to your documents. The columns are indexes by SharePoint and therefore are searchable.  Webpart options like faceted search also become available, giving you additional filtering tools to find the documents you want quickly and efficiently.

The main criticism of a metadata structure is that it requires a bit more time and though to set up than a folder structure.

Content Types

Content types are groups of Metadata columns you’ve designed around a specific purpose. Using content types for organization involves tagging different files based on sortable criteria. In SharePoint, the design of Content Types recognizes the fact that not all files are going to be tagged using the same set of metadata columns. With content types, you can define unique sets of columns for tagging and organizing the different types of files you upload into your document library.

For instance, you might have one content type set up for invoices, another for contracts, and another for product specification documents. Each of these files types have different categorization needs and therefore different custom columns. Invoices and contracts might need client or date, but a product specification document would more likely be tagged based on product type. Content types let you set up which types of metadata are required for each type of file you upload to your document library. As a result, you can organize entirely dissimilar types of documents into the same library without creating an organizational nightmare.

Stay Tuned

Now that you are familiar with the basics of organizing your SharePoint document library, stay tuned for our next blog. Next time, we will take a deeper look at some of the features buried within your document library. These functions include ways to configure custom views, options for library security, strategies for naming files, and more.

In the meantime, get an intro to organizing your SharePoint Document Library with folders and metadata.

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Cathy Dew
Cathy Dew – CEO + Information Architect
Cathy focuses the company on our mission – Real results. Every time. Information architect and strategist, Cathy is passionate about making software work well – the function, the feel, the result.