Building Proper SharePoint Document Libraries

Libraries for Work Management

SharePoint Libraries are a key component for work management. Metaphorically, libraries are similar to file cabinets. They hold your content, and allow you to find and retrieve your content whenever you need to do work. However, SharePoint libraries are far more capable then any static file cabinet (or file share in computer vernacular).

Libraries, like most everything in SharePoint, are metadata driven. This eliminates the need to folder all of your content. More importantly metadata driven libraries allow you to very quickly and simply find the right documents when you need them without the need to dig into folder after folder to find a document, or to try to interpret another users' file naming schema. Metadata allows you to find the $314.15 invoice from Pi Incorporated that was issued on March 14th.

Moreover, libraries allow for the extension and individual configuration of the overall SharePoint content model. This makes it possible to manage work broadly (via content types) and then specifically in a particular library. Once content is in a suitable library it can be managed in a variety of ways that make work considerably more productive.

Unfortunately, SharePoint document libraries out-of-the-box must be configured to perform this way. The good news is configuring document libraries does not require coding or hiring a developer. It just takes some patience and a lot of planning.

Students will experience a detailed walkthrough of the best practices for the planning process, and the library configuration process in SharePoint (SharePoint On-Line Office 365).  The instructor will cover all elements step by step using a live instance of SharePoint.

Content Specificity

Document libraries in SharePoint can be made to handle very specific documents. The best way to maintain a file cabinet is to control specifically what is allowed in it. The same can be said of libraries. By specifying the type of documents allowed in each library, users can work with that content and perform only the tasks necessary to complete their work.

Out-of-the-box document libraries in SharePoint do not manage specific documents by default. This is a feature that needs to be enabled. Any type of document can be added to the library by default. Or, more specifically, all documents that get added to a particular library are treated the same regardless of the specific kind document. This means that a contract, a statement of work, an insurance binder, or an invoice would be treated the same in a given document library. Managing different content in a library in all the same fashion is inefficient and impractical - garbage in, garbage out.

Why are document libraries set up this way by default? Because work management varies by company and SharePoint cannot not encompass every organizations' methodology towards work. It is up to you to define your library to work for your content. What is important to remember is that it is possible to make your document library work for you by managing what content is supposed to be in each specific library.

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How Many Libraries?

When planning your work management for a SharePoint site it is very important to remember you are not confined to a single library. In fact, using a single library in a SharePoint site to handle everything is a rarity. You wouldn't use one file cabinet to handle every document that comes into your company. Likewise, you shouldn't use one library to handle all of the content of a SharePoint site.

Yet, this is what SharePoint looks like. A team site, for example, has one document library entitled Documents. It would seem intuitive therefore to place all documents into this already provided library. This is practical only if the number of documents is very limited and manageable. If the team site was for a specific project that needs to deal with only a handful of reports for example.

However, if your company needs to work with many different kinds of documents, it makes sense to have a library for each kind of document that needs to worked on in the site. For example, the accounting department may use a SharePoint site to keep track of invoices both sent to clients and received from vendors. It would be a better practice to have a library for invoices sent and a different one for invoices received.

Sometimes it is practical to manage similar kinds of documents in one library if they are related to each other. Purchase orders and invoices for example. This all comes down to the work philosophy at your company, and how best to manage this work in SharePoint. But, do not be afraid to make more libraries.


The default view in a document library shows the file name, when the file was last modified, and by whom. This is not helpful, or useful information. It is there because all files have that information present in their properties. It is "information in a pinch".

Chances are, you want information you can actually use. It is far more important to know when an invoice is due and for how much than it is to know that the invoice was modified two weeks ago. Libraries in SharePoint allow you to build customized views that make this possible. Moreover, views in libraries can add additional column data automatically displaying the total amount of the invoices due, for example.

Views can be made to provide very specific items from the library eliminating the "scroll of death" often used to try and find a specific item in a large library. Continuing the invoice example, it is possible to make a view that shows all unpaid invoices, or all invoices arranged by vendor, etc.

Libraries support multiple views. This can be useful not only to make views for finding specific items, like the above mentioned unpaid invoices, but this can also be used to make views appropriate for mobile devices. You can customize a view built specifically for the desktop, and have a similar view that is smartphone friendly for your road warriors. SharePoint will let you do all of this, but it is up to you to actually set it up.


This is a plain and simple advantage that SharePoint libraries have over file shares in an organization. SharePoint libraries support version control. Version control means how many different versions of a document do you wish to hold onto in a SharePoint library. This is very powerful for managing work that undergoes regular revision. Updates to a contract or a statement of work can be tracked right in the library.

The version control in a SharePoint library is highly configurable. Version control in SharePoint libraries allows you to define major and minor versions; sometimes called draft versions. The flexibility in versioning in SharePoint allows you to define if versions are even necessary, and if so, how many major versions, and how many minor versions you wish to hold onto.

Major versions are denoted by integers (e.g., version 1, version 2, etc.), while minor versions are denoted by decimals (e.g., version 1.1, version 1.2, etc.). Typically, major versions are useful for documents that are edited individually, and minor versions are useful for content that undergo group editing.

When version control is enabled, each time an item gets added to the library (with the same filename) it gets a new version number. Editors of the library can look at each version and promote the final or latest version that is seen by the general public (of the library).

Version management is defined on a per library basis. This makes it possible to have a library for documents that are still in the editing phase (with versioning on), and a separate library for final works (with versioning off).

Policy and Exceptions to Policy

SharePoint offers a powerful (and complex) content model. It starts with content types that broadly define how particular content should be managed. Libraries then allow for very specific behavior. Libraries help define how the content is managed in the instance of the library specifically. This one, two punch is very powerful.

A key aspect of work management is handling exceptions. While most work may undergo a routine process (i.e., an invoice comes in, it goes to accounts payable, it gets paid, etc.), there seems to always be something that does not fit that process. Perhaps it is a very large invoice, perhaps a specific vendor has defined terms that alter your company's day-to-day handling of a particular item. SharePoints content model is built to handle these exceptions. And, libraries are the key. If an exception comes up, it can be routed to a library built to handle the exception. This is also quite useful for identifying the amount of special cases that arise in the company. Too many exceptions may indicate that the process itself may need some re-engineering.

SharePoint document libraries are a great way to manage work in SharePoint. The default out-of-the-box document library is completely unconfigured, but with some planning can be made to extend the content model to fit the work practices of your organization. The best part is, it can all be done without code.

The key to getting the most out of SharePoint is to understand the content model, and work with it to fit your organization's needs. Libraries are a part of the content model and are designed to not only hold documents, but provide you with useful information about the content within the library. With proper planning a document library can boost work efficiency by allowing users to work with the information rather than search for the information. Leveraging libraries in SharePoint the right way leads to productive work management.