How to Use a SharePoint Document Library for Projects
‘Hey, who has the most recent version of the project plan?’
‘Who’s using the project task file in Excel? Can you close it? I need to update something.’
‘When you’re done, just rename the file with your initials and date so I know which version it is’.
If you ever tried to manage a project without a systematic way to manage documents, you’ve likely encountered some of these problems.
Without a centralized library, your project documents will get lost in email threads, buried under multiple versions, or overwritten by different authors.
Even if you do introduce a document management system, it will only be useful if everyone doesn’t treat the tool as their own personal storage with lots of folders and subfolders.
A SharePoint document library is a simple yet powerful way to take control of project documents and increase collaboration with easy access to the right information.
Keep reading to learn more about SharePoint libraries and key features such as metadata and views.
What is a SharePoint Document Library?
A SharePoint document library is like a large folder for creating and storing files in a central location.
The library displays a list of files and folders along with information or metadata about each file, such as ‘created by’.
A library is added to sites created in SharePoint Online and SharePoint 2019 by default. Users can add more libraries or different types of libraries as needed to the site.
The library inherits the permissions of the parent site. It is possible, but not recommended, to set permissions at the library or file level.
Unlike the document folder on your desktop, a SharePoint document library offers numerous collaborative features to project teams, including:
- Co-editing documents in real-time.
- Version control.
- Sharing files using links.
- Adding workflows for reviews processes.
A SharePoint document library is a significant piece of your project toolkit, helping to create a single source of truth for files and deliverables.
There are four main types of libraries in SharePoint.
- Document Library: This is the default library described above. Use this library to store project documents in one place for your team.
- Picture Library: A way to store pictures, displayed as thumbnails for easy sorting. If you are working on a marketing or image-heavy project, this type of library may be useful for project assets.
- Site Assets Library: Also added by default, this library is used to store everything in a SharePoint site.
- Site Pages Library: Similar to the above, this library houses all of the pages in a site. No documents are stored in this library.
Libraries can also exist in a portal area (used by the whole company) and in large-scale document or record centers.
You can store numerous file types in a SharePoint document library. If in doubt, Microsoft has created a list of file types and extensions that cannot be added to a SharePoint On-Premises document library.
SharePoint document libraries offer generous file storage:
- 30,000,000 documents
- SharePoint 2013: 250 MB file limit. This can be increased to an absolute maximum of 2 GB by your IT team.
- SharePoint 2016: 2 GB file limit with a maximium of 10 GB.
- SharePoint Online and SharePoint 2019: 15 GB file limit.
Note – for SharePoint Online, the 15 GB limit only applies to files uploaded via drag and drop. Files uploaded using the ‘upload’ button are limited to 2 GB.
For more details on file storage and character limitations, including attachments, version history, and file naming, see this handy infographic from Matt Wade.
There are a few other document storage options available from Microsoft you should be aware of.
OneDrive for Business
OneDrive for Business is a single document library stored in a single SharePoint site collection.
It’s ideal for creating and storing your personal work documents.
Whilst OneDrive for Business shares some functionality with a SharePoint library, you can’t assign metadata to files or add workflows.
Sharing documents for collaboration from OneDrive is also tricky due to permissions. If you do need to share a file, it’s best to move the document into the team site.
By comparison, a SharePoint document library is ideal for project teams and company-wide files.
Growing in popularity, Microsoft Teams is a collaboration platform with chat, video conferencing, and file management.
Teams is built on the Office 365 Groups (Groups) framework and each team has an associated SharePoint Online site.
When it comes to files, each team has a SharePoint document library and each channel within the team has a separate folder.
Your team can access a file either directly through Teams or by opening the file in SharePoint Online.
Thanks to the sync between Teams and the underlying SharePoint site, updates made in either location are saved for everyone to see.
Important documents can also be added as a tab in a Team site, making it easy to find important documents.
However, it’s not possible to add metadata or workflows to a team. In time, it can get a little tricky to find files in Teams, especially with multiple channels. You may need to implement some guidelines for file names and folders for quick access.
Now that you know a little more about SharePoint document libraries, let’s take a look at four ways to improve collaboration with this toolset.
How to Improve Team Collaboration with a SharePoint Document Library
Like most people, I use folders to organize documents on my local desktop. The folders make sense to me and I can easily find what I need, when I need it.
Trying to replicate a similar structure in a SharePoint document library is impossible as everyone will have their own way of managing folders.
It’s too easy to file something away in the wrong place or to lose files in subfolders.
Metadata, data about your data, is a simpler way to manage files. Using metadata eliminates the need for folders and subfolders.
In SharePoint, metadata is represented as a column, for example, file name, modified date, and file type. Using this information, team members can filter and sort the library to find what they need. We’ll cover this in more detail in the next section.
In addition to the out-of-the-box columns, you can also add custom metadata that is more relevant to your project.
- Document type, for example, meeting minutes.
- Status, such as approved.
- Department, useful for cross-functional projects.
It really depends on your project. To get the most from metadata, it’s important to agree what’s needed before the project starts and to make sure your team are following this process.
To add new columns, click the library ribbon and select ‘Create Column’.
Fill in the form with the relevant details. In this example, I’ve added a new column, ‘Project Area’ to a website re-design project.
As teams upload files, they can categorize the document as ‘Content’, ‘Design’ and so on to make it easier to find.
2. Filters and Views
Once the metadata is in place, it becomes easier to filter files and create views.
Filtering is very straightforward. Simply click the relevant column and select a filter. In this case, I’ve filtered my library by ‘Design’:
You can also create views to find documents you use frequently or need for particular phases of the project.
There are four types of views in SharePoint:
- Standard, the view applied to a newly created library (no filter applied).
- Calendar view, which renders a list as a calendar.
- Datasheet view, useful for bulk editing in an Excel-like grid.
- Gantt view, which is handy for tracking deadlines and project timelines.
To create a view based on the ‘Design’ filter, navigate to the ribbon and select ‘Create View’. In this example, we’ll use the ‘Standard View’.
Give the view a name and select the relevant columns.
Next, use the sort and filter options to pick the data you need to see. I’ve picked ‘Project Area is equal to Design’ under Filter.
Finally, save your view. Here, I’ve used ‘Design Docs’.
As you can see, the view is added to the top of the library and displays only design documents. At any time, users see view the entire library by clicking ‘All Documents’.
There’s also an option to add the view as private (for your use only) and public (for anyone using the site).
Creating public views for your team as the project progresses is a simple way to help collaboration. In this case, the design team can easily find their documents as needed.
Introduced in SharePoint 2013, co-authoring allows two or more people to work on a file and save their updates at the same time.
Co-authoring is the default setting for SharePoint Server and SharePoint Online.
Document co-authoring eliminates several problems with file management, including:
- Sending versions of a file via email.
- Storing multiple versions of the same file.
- Combining different files into a single master file.
- Losing or overwriting edits.
This feature is especially useful for remote team members or when working through updates on a conference call or meeting.
To co-author a document, open and use the file as usual. A presence notification in the top-right hand corner of your document indicates who else is viewing or editing the document.
At any time, you can refresh the document to view the new updates.
Co-authoring replaces the ‘check-in’ and ‘check-out’ facility. Previously, when a document was ‘checked-out’, it was unavailable for editing by another team member.
If you’re working with sensitive documents or need to control edits, you can manually enable this functionality as needed. This feature also allows team members to add comments about their changes, which may provide useful context to another person.
Use ‘check-out/check-in’ with caution as this can slow teams down.
There is an another caveat worth noting – co-authoring an Excel file is a little tricky. As explained by Microsoft:
“The Excel client application does not support co-authoring workbooks in SharePoint Server. The Excel client application uses the Shared Workbook feature to support non-real-time co-authoring workbooks that are stored locally or on network (UNC) paths. Co-authoring workbooks in SharePoint is supported by using the Excel Web App.”
In the next section, we’ll see how version control works with co-authoring.
4. Version Control
Version control allows authors to revert to a previous version of a document if needed. This setting is a useful way to control edits and retrieve lost data.
Each update to a file is stored as its own instance, which can be restored. To do this, the filename and location must remain the same, and a recent version of the file must be available.
SharePoint Server has three types of versioning:
- No versioning, meaning no previous iterations of a document is stored.
- Create major versions is used to create numbered versions of a document to track edits.
- Create major and minor versions tracks all changes, using a numbering scheme like 1.0, 1.1. and so on. This is useful for distinguishing between final and draft content.
Use these steps to activate version control in your SharePoint site.
Go to a document library.
- On the Ribbon, click on “Library” and “Library Settings”.
- Under “General Settings”, click on “Versioning Settings”.
- Select the relevant settings. Note, you can set how many versions of a document to save – an important consideration for storage limits and overall site performance. If in doubt, check with your IT team.
Once version control is activated, access the version history by clicking the three-dots beside a file:
Review and restore the relevant version as needed.
The above suggestions will help your team to find and use project documents quickly whilst maintaining control over edits and versions.
Here are a few additional tips to get the most from your SharePoint document library.
Firstly, ask the team to share documents as links in email or team chats instead of attachments. A simple change to eliminate document silos!
Secondly, consider adding some blank templates to your site, for example, a timesheet or presentation deck. These resources are an easy way to ensure everyone is following the same structure – great for collaboration and reporting!
Finally, add alerts to documents to track updates. Choose the file and select ‘Alert Me’ from the library ribbon. Fill in the various fields on the form and chose when you wish to receive a notification, for example, ‘anything changes’. Press save.
In her free time, she enjoys a challenging session at the gym, tucking into a good book, and walking the beautiful Galway coastline with her dog.