(Part 7 of How to Use SharePoint series)
We’ve covered SharePoint lists… why you should use them, how to use them, and how to create views. We’ve also looked at some more advanced user features like Exporting to Excel, creating alerts, and understanding versioning. Now we are going to look at SharePoint document libraries. Fortunately, many of the list features we covered translate to document libraries, so most of this content won’t be entirely foreign.
A SharePoint document library is a place to store files. That’s it. Easy, right?
Many times it’s viewed within an organization as something similar as a file share. I can store files and other people can see and edit them… if they have the correct permissions. Unfortunately, this is the extent of many organizations’ use of a document library. Ultimately, it becomes a glorified file share. A digital dumping ground where employees store documents they *think* may be needed by team members. After a couple years, the libraries often become an outdated mess, and the library becomes as convoluted as a file share in the 90s.
There are advantages to using a SharePoint document library as opposed to a file share. You’ll find many of them are the same as a SharePoint list.
Single Source of Truth
One of the big advantages is a library can store documents that represent a Single Source of Truth. Although people may have downloaded a local copy and made modifications to their own version on their desktop, the one in the library is the truth. You could, of course, do this on a file share. But you don’t have the checks in place SharePoint can impose to ensure the Single Source of Truth remains, in fact, the single source of truth.
A library can be configured to require check-out prior to making any modifications to a document. While a document is checked-out, other users can view the most recently published copy. After the changes have been made, the document can be either checked-in, or the changes can be discarded. If it is checked in, this version of the document is made available to everyone. Using check-out prevents locked files and the confusion of multiple people editing the same document.
Along similar lines as check-in/check-out is versioning. When versioning is enabled, anytime a document is uploaded that already exists, rather than overwrite the existing document, a new version is created. This prevents the dreaded overwrite mistake, where a person accidentally overwrites an important file with a blank document, or one with entirely different content. With versioning, all you need to do is revert the document back to a correct version. SharePoint can be configured to allow for any number of major and minor versions. This allows you to publish a version of the document all can see, while also maintaining a space for your drafts. Versioning will be covered in more detail in a later module.
You can automate processes in a document library by creating an associated workflow. The most often used scenario is an approval workflow. You post a document to a library, but before it is made publicly accessible, it must be approved. Rather than sending emails and various copies of the documents back and forth, SharePoint handles and standardizes the process. Although this is a common scenario, custom workflows can be created to solve for many business’s pain points.
A significant, but often overlooked, feature of a SharePoint document library is the ability to use metadata. Metadata is data about data… something that aids in understanding the content of a document that isn’t necessarily contained within the document. On a file share, think of Size and Date Modified as metadata. They help identify the content. In a SharePoint document library you can add any number of metadata columns, though it is recommended to maintain no more than six metadata columns. With few exceptions, six provides enough columns to find the necessary content, without overwhelming users when uploading content.
In the next few blog posts I will review some of these features in more detail. You now have a high-level understanding of document libraries and understand why they are more beneficial than a traditional file share.
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