Don’t Forget SharePoint Document Versioning, Part 1

By Cathy Dew on October 24, 2017

If you use SharePoint as your enterprise’s document management or document creation solution, then document versioning is destined to be one of the most important features at your disposal. When enabled, versioning allows you to keep a running tab on the edit history of a file. Whenever you edit a document or change a list item in a SharePoint document library, you create a new version. It doesn’t matter if you are editing the text of a document or tweaking the metadata, SharePoint records every edit and retains the old versions of the file.

There can be many instances in which SharePoint’s document versioning will prove useful to you and your team. For example, when someone edits a file and accidentally deletes a key piece of information. You can go back to a prior version and recover the lost data. Alternatively, you might want to figure out where in the history of a file a certain edit took place, as well as who was responsible for that change. Version history makes it easy. Document versioning can be useful for a variety of other reasons, too, ranging from reference to recovery to auditing.


Enabling Document Versioning

In short, every SharePoint team needs document versioning for one reason or another. You may not immediately foresee a time that you would need to access an older version of a document, but it’s still good to at least have the feature enabled. That way, if something goes wrong and you need to recover an older draft of an important document, you have a way to do so.

Enabling document versioning is easy. If your team uses SharePoint Online, you might not have to do anything at all. Major versioning is enabled by default in all SharePoint Online document libraries. You will need to enable it manually for other web parts, but you might be all set since most document versioning happens in document libraries anyway. For SharePoint on-premise solutions, you will need to enable Sharepoint document versioning manually for any web part where you wish to use it—including libraries and lists.

The good news is that this process is simple. Just navigate to the library or list where you want to use versioning and open “List Settings” or “Library Settings.” Once you are in the settings menu, click “Versioning settings.” You will see a section for Document Version History, where you can tweak the versioning preferences for your SharePoint library or list. You can choose to create just major versions or to create both major and minor (draft) versions. You can also specify limits on the number of versions you wish to keep at once.


Major Versus Minor

Your first question when configuring versioning settings for your lists or libraries will probably be about major and minor versions. Minor versions are for edits and tweaks during a more in-depth publishing procedure. If you have a workflow approval process in place where you must review each update to a file before publishing, you would use minor versioning. Minor versions remain invisible to the general audience (e.g., most of your end users) until they are published as major versions. In this kind of situation, minor versions are just in-progress drafts, while major versions are the “official” or “completed” versions of a file.

You might use a minor versioning process in a document library where you are storing a lot of formal documents. For instance, company policies, employee handbooks, terms and conditions documents, and other similar files are all highly formal. You don’t want just anybody to go in and tweak these files. Instead, you can monitor all changes carefully. You can use minor versioning to approve changes before they are made official. That way, a user can propose changes, but they don’t go live until someone in a higher-up position (or several people, in the case of a workflow) has had a chance to review and approve the tweaks.

Versioning is a powerful way to archive a mini-history for each file in your SharePoint library.

Minor versions have their advantages, but most SharePoint teams will be fine just using major versions. In situations where teams are collaborating on a specific file, major versioning will just create a new version every time the file is updated—no review or approval process necessary. This system is efficient and allows the file to evolve quickly while also providing contingencies for overwriting accidents.

You can tell SharePoint how many major versions to keep on file at any one time. The golden rule is to allow for at least three major versions of every file. You may want a longer audit trail for more important documents, especially if a lot of people are collaborating on the creation or revision of one file. However, if you are using on-premise servers for your SharePoint environment, you may wish to minimize storage needs by cutting down on the number of versions you save. Sure, a single document doesn’t take up all that much space. However, if you have two dozen versions of every file in your document library, that will add up and cause storage space problems—especially if you already have massive numbers of documents. In that case, three major versions is a good place to start.


Check-in, Check-out

One of the concerns with versioning is about what happens if two or more people attempt to edit the same file simultaneously. This situation can create an overwrite problem where one person’s edits get lost because someone else is working on the file at the same time. For teams that use SharePoint as a collaboration suite, this issue is especially pressing.

The best way to control collaboration and prevent unintentional overwriting accidents is to require check-ins and check-outs for your files. Think of this system as you would think of a public library. When someone checks out a book, that book becomes temporarily available at the library. If someone else wants to check out the same book, they will have to wait for the first person to return it, or check it back in.

The same basic premise applies with SharePoint check-out and check-in. When someone checks out a document, that file is temporarily locked for edits. Other users can view the document, but only the person who has the file on check-out can make changes. When the user is done editing the file, they check it back in, and SharePoint creates a new version. Other users can check out the new version to make additional changes.

To enable check-in and check-out of files, go back to your library or list settings and open “Versioning settings” once more. There is a “Require Check Out” section on this page. Look for the “Require documents to be checked out before they can be edited?” heading and click “Yes.” Finally, click “OK” to save your new versioning settings and enable check-ins and check-outs on the documents in that library or list.

You can also add a “Checked Out By” column to any library or list, to tell users who is currently editing a file. This feature can be useful for situations where one user needs to make urgent edits to a file and cannot wait an unspecified length of time to get edit privileges. With the “Checked Out By” column, the user can see which of their colleagues has a file checked out and then contact that person directly to get it checked back in.


Getting Started with Document Versioning

When misused, document versioning can create a confusing web of file versions—each only nominally different from the last, but still taking up space regardless. When used the right way, though, versioning can be a powerful way to archive a mini-history for each file in your lists or libraries. At very least, automatic versioning saves you from overwriting and losing valuable data. Depending on how many versions you decide to save, it can also sketch out the entire evolution of the document, from early draft form to completed document. The ability to track edits and who made them only makes it that much easier to manage the creation and revision of a document—especially in a highly collaborative work atmosphere.

No matter the business and no matter the number of documents on file, every enterprise with a SharePoint environment can benefit from using document versioning. Thankfully, setting up versioning is intuitive as far as SharePoint configurations go.

With that said, if you have any questions about document versioning or need help getting it set up for your various document lists and libraries, our team at 2Plus2 can help. Set up a free consultation with our team to talk about document versioning and how you can use it to make life easier for your entire team. Go online to schedule a free consultation with our team or call 510-652-7700 today.


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.