Deep Dive: SharePoint Document Libraries

The very heart of the SharePoint experience

Best practices for managing SharePoint document libraries include:

  • Use multiple document libraries
  • Configure permissions to ensure security
  • Create a fully-realized folder structure or managed metadata system (with content types)
  • Establish consistent file naming conventions
  • Activate document versioning to preserve drafts
  • Customize multiple document library views
  • Use workflows to automate document processes

For many enterprises that use SharePoint, the document library (or rather, multiple document libraries) are at the very heart of the SharePoint experience. Companies that use SharePoint first and foremost as a means of storing and managing their electronic documents will use the SharePoint document library more than any other feature or facet of the software. SharePoint has multiple ways for you to organize your documents, so that companies can customize SharePoint to fit their organization and culture. As such, learning SharePoint document library best practices is a must for most organizations that use SharePoint.

What is a SharePoint Document Library?

The idea behind a document library in SharePoint is to provide organizations with a place where they can store, organize, and manage their files. A SharePoint library, in other words, is the same as any other type of library: a collection of content for people to access, use, and reference.

SharePoint document libraries are intended to replace your network file shares and provide a more robust way of organizing and storing your files.

While a network file share is convenient, it doesn’t allow more than one dimension (folder structure) of organization. With SharePoint Document Libraries, you can build multiple dimensions of file organization. Think of SharePoint document libraries as your personal electronic Librarian, using the file organizational structure that is specific to your company and departments.

Organizing a SharePoint Document Library

Just like with other types of libraries, a SharePoint document library needs to have a strong system of organization. For this reason, most enterprises don’t have just one SharePoint library, but many. Depending on how many files a company has, it might break apart document libraries by department, by client, or even by project. By creating multiple different libraries for multiple different purposes, an enterprise can make file discoverability easier. A user looking for a specific file would know roughly where to look based on criteria like department, client, project, or date.

Determining the best way to divide documents across various document libraries is the first step to creating a well-organized file management system on SharePoint.

As mentioned above, some enterprises will break document libraries apart by department or client, while others will have individual document libraries for each project. The best practice in this area will ultimately depend on the enterprise and how many documents they must manage. The good news is that SharePoint makes it easy to move documents from one library to another, with a simple user-friendly drag-and-drop interface.

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However, deciding which document libraries will house which files is only the first step to devising a smart organization system. The next step is to divide those files further—either using folders or metadata tagging. Folder structures are similar to the file organization systems found on desktop computers. Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X both allow users to manage their personal files across different folders stored on the hard drive. SharePoint has a similar option, allowing teams to create folders and sub-folders within their document libraries and organize different sets of documents into each.

Metadata, meanwhile, can remove the need for folders by applying informational tags to each file. For instance, a company might tag every invoice with a metadata tag of “Invoice.” A user could then use metadata to filter the documents and only show the invoices. Content types allow for further management of metadata, by requiring users to input certain pieces of data for every file tagged under a specific category. To return to the example from above, “Invoices” could be the content type. SharePoint would then be configured to require every file tagged with the “Invoices” content type to have a client tag and a date tag as well. Content types are essentially a way to make sure that every file has the correct pieces of information.

Folder structures and metadata tagging can aid in the discovery of the files in a document library, but they aren’t the only parts of SharePoint library organization. On the contrary, having standard naming conventions across every library will ensure neat, uniform organization and make files even easier to find.

Here are a few standard rules of thumb to follow when deciding on the naming conventions for a SharePoint library:

  • Keep file names short
  • Avoid using spaces or special characters (such as parenthesis, hashtags, brackets, etc.)
  • Use abbreviations, acronyms, and numbers to shorten file names

Above all, it is important to be consistent. Just like there are different ways to split up files across various document libraries, folders, and content types, there are also different ways to go about naming the files. Some organizations like to use document types (like “Invoice” or “Year-End Report”) in the file names as well as in their content types. Others use client names, dates, project titles, and more. Ultimately, the best file naming conventions are going to depend on the needs of the enterprise at hand. How a company breaks up its document libraries and metadata tagging, then, will influence that organization’s file naming conventions.

Document versioning is another important feature to enable when setting up the organization of a document library. With versioning enabled, SharePoint will automatically save and preserve drafts of files. Should an enterprise need to access an earlier draft of a project file, versioning will make doing so easier.

Learn more about folder structures and metadata content types. Learn more about file versioning, document naming conventions, and other best practices for SharePoint document library organization.

Securing your SharePoint Document Library

Different SharePoint libraries can also be used to apply varying levels of security to different sets of files. SharePoint allows organizations to set up individual permissions policies for each document library—thereby limiting who can access a library and view the documents therein.

SharePoint offers a relatively easy-to-configure permissions system for libraries. With it, you can dictate which users have access to different libraries, folders, lists, or items. You can also use permissions to designate certain documents as "View Only," to prevent unapproved updates. SharePoint makes this entire process fairly seamless, allowing site managers to view lists of users associated with different libraries, folders, or other "securable objects," as Microsoft calls them. In these lists, you can see who has access to the securable object in question, as well as what their permission level is. Read Microsoft's guide on how to configure permissions.

The one very important element of SharePoint's document library permissions that many tend to find confusing is the idea of inheritance.

The default settings of SharePoint's document library are configured so that "all sites, lists, and libraries in a site collection inherit permissions settings from the site that is directly above them in the site hierarchy." In other words, a folder featured in a library by default would have the same permissions settings as the library itself. The folder would "inherit" those settings. In turn, the library itself is likely inheriting settings from the site collection, site, or subsite of which it is a part.

If you have a folder in your library that you don't want everyone with access to the library to be able to see, you can break permissions. This action breaks the chain of inheritance and allows you to personalize permissions for different folders (and via inherence, their documents). However, breaking permissions repeatedly can create an administrative nightmare where no one knows what they have access to or why. Also, the process of breaking permissions itself takes time and work, so it's only worth doing for folders or libraries that demand the higher level of security.

Learn more about managing the security of your document libraries.

How to Manage Your SharePoint Document Library

Organizing a SharePoint document library so that it is ready to use is one thing. Managing a SharePoint library so that it works as efficiently within an organization as possible is another.

Two of the features that are crucial for proper SharePoint library management are views and workflows. Views allow teams to customize the display method of files within each library. Workflows, meanwhile, can automate certain key processes that involve the files stored in a document library.

With SharePoint’s custom views feature, you can decide which metadata columns to view while browsing your document library. You can also tweak how the columns sort a list of files. For instance, you can sort columns alphabetically, by date, etc. Finally, you can save multiple custom views and then revert to them later.

This system makes it easy for different users to sort and manage SharePoint libraries in different ways—depending on what is most convenient for them at any given moment.

Workflows deliver convenience to SharePoint document libraries in a different way. Workflows can be used to automate various common tasks that you might encounter while managing a document library. For instance, there is a document approval workflow, which can be used to route a near-complete project file through multiple higher-ups.

It is also possible to configure custom workflows to carry out some of the more complicated tasks of document library management—such as the archival of old files. Document retention laws require businesses to hold on to certain documents for specified lengths of time. However, you may not want to keep every file stored in your document library when you aren’t actively using it on a regular basis. A custom workflow can automatically archive files, moving them out of the document library and to a different part of your SharePoint site.

learnLearn more about the benefits of custom views, how to create a document retention workflow and other best practices for managing SharePoint document libraries.

SharePoint Document Library Best Practices

To review, some of the best practices for managing SharePoint document libraries include:

  • Use multiple document libraries to split up large collections of files
  • Configure permissions to ensure security of documents and data
  • Create a fully-realized folder structure or managed metadata system (with content types)
  • Establish consistent file naming conventions
  • Activate document versioning to preserve older drafts of files
  • Customize multiple document library views (and switch back and forth between them for easy library management)
  • Use workflows to automate document approval processes, file retention, and more

If you need help implementing any of these SharePoint library best practices within your organization, 2Plus2 can help. We have assisted many enterprises in building and populating their document libraries. Whether you need help building a managed metadata system or require assistance customizing workflows to take care of key document library management tasks, we surely have the expertise to lend a hand.

Go online to schedule a free consultation with our team or call 510-652-7700 today.