Best practices for SharePoint Document Libraries

30 July 2021

What are best practices when it comes to SharePoint document libraries? And why is it so important to get it right? 

We noticed a trend of the following search terms being used on a regular basis:

  • “SharePoint document libraries best practices”
  • “SharePoint document libraries permissions”
  • and even “SharePoint version control best practices”

And there is a reason for it. The growth of Teams users.

The current rate of Microsoft Teams adoption is extraordinary. This trend has been excelling for the last few years but between 2019 and Q2 2021 the number of Microsoft Teams users jumped from 20 million to 145 million.

Every Microsoft Team created has an associated SharePoint site, including a Document Library. Any files uploaded to or created in Teams are actually stored in the SharePoint Document Library, not Teams.

SharePoint is a highly configurable platform used by to build intranets, manage documents, and collaborate in a secure environment. Microsoft have therefore chosen to use SharePoint Online to power document management in Microsoft Teams. Team members can work on documents in SharePoint or Teams, with updates instantly synced between the two platforms.

The boom of Teams has an impact - many more millions of SharePoint document libraries have been created and therefore many more problems created. So what is the best practice to manage SharePoint document libraries?


What are SharePoint Document Libraries?

Let’s start with the basics, a Document Library is a location on a site where you can upload, create, update, and collaborate on files with team members. Each library displays a list of files and key information about the files, such as who was the last person to modify a document.

Note: the “Files” tab in a Microsoft Team, actually uses a Document Library in the background to store the files. More about that in a separate blog at some point!


Best Practices: How many Document Libraries should I create?

One, and you don’t even need to create it.

Let me explain. Every time a Microsoft Team is created, a corresponding SharePoint Site Collection is created to host all the content. And within each SharePoint Site Collection, you will always get a Document Library created automatically. This is the library that is automatically linked the “Files” tab in Microsoft Teams and it is the library that is automatically referenced in library viewer webparts loaded in a SharePoint Team site’s home page.

Because best practice information architecture now recommends creating a Site Collection for nearly everything (and definitely not creating sub-sites btw) and because a Microsoft Team by default points the Files tab to a specific Document Library, we recommend not creating additional Document Libraries for the majority of use cases. Remember, each Channel you create within a Microsoft Team, create a folder (next to the General folder) and not another Document Library (ignoring how Private Channels behave for now).

There absolutely will be use cases where additional Document Libraries make sense and where there is a good/practical/technical reason – but in > 90% of cases, go with the Out-of-the-Box.


Best Practices: Should I use folders in a Document Library?

“Folder best practice” has gone through a few U-turns over the years.

Folders were a must-have in the early versions of SharePoint, then became a dirty word with SharePoint 2010, and now have recently come back into popular fashion.

The reasons for folders being back in fashion include:

  1. They are unavoidable, as each Microsoft Teams Channel creates a folder with the same name as the Channel.
  2. They are unavoidable, as the out of the box Microsoft Teams and SharePoint UI allows users to easily create them.
  3. Best practice (and certainly common practice) will now dictate that most sites (Teams / Site Collections) will only have one Document Library, and therefore the options for structuring your files (within the site) have in effect been reduced to folders.
  4. The majority of end-users will typically only see folders from the Channel level – and through Microsoft Teams, folders will not appear as deep as they otherwise would.
  5. Finally, with the right tools and information architecture in place, folders can serve a powerful purpose beyond structure: they can drive automatic setting of meta tag values.

Best Practices: How do I best configure versioning in a Document Library?

There are many answers to this, and they are really down to the use cases.

For now, I will focus on the most common use case, which is the day-to-day collaboration use case within a Microsoft Team or within a SharePoint Online Team Site.

I will without hesitation recommend sticking to the “out of the box” versioning configuration for this use case, which effectively means that:

  • Content approval will not be required.
  • Major versions are automatically created (and the last 500 versions are retained)
  • Check-out is not required

The benefits are that users are not bothered in their flow of work, but versioning just functions in the background – allowing roll-back and comparisons. Importantly, it also allows for better support of incredibly powerful “co-authoring” scenarios which is not possible when “Check-out” is required.


Best Practices: How to best tag in a Document Library?

All content saved in SharePoint is tagged. At minimum with the file name, as well as details about created and modified the document and date/time for those events.

There are huge advantages to be had, if you can extend this and apply a common set of tags (SharePoint Document Library Columns) that your users tag against.

Where it makes sense, using the Microsoft 365 Term Store as a source for your tags adds additional benefit as you can ensure consistency of the tag values.

Practically speaking an example of this could be that project related documents can be tagged with the project name or project code. Just that alone is a huge benefit when providing good search experiences or when filtering documents.

Following through on the example above, you would configure the Document Library as follows from the Library Settings:

  • “Create column” or “Add column from existing Site Columns”
  • When creating the column, you should set options as follows:
    1. “Managed Metadata” under Name and Type (you will then see a warning, which you generally can ignore in modern SharePoint Online environments)
    2. In “Multiple value field”, tick the box if more than one choice can be made. E.g. it would not be unusual to allow multiple project codes.
    3. Under “Use a managed term set” browse to a term set that contains your project codes or project names.

(in this example, you can leave all other options with their default values)

Best Practices: How should I name a document library?

You actually do not get any choice when it comes to naming the Document Library in a Microsoft Team / SharePoint Site Collection.

But do consider guidance for naming the folders within the library and try to encourage a policy of folder names that are intuitive and natural to end users. Also encourage folders names that indicate a clear and specific purpose. E.g. avoid a folder such as “Admin & Sales”, but instead consider “Admin” and “Sales”. Referring back to the earlier point around tagging, it will also allow better default tagging to be configured at the folder level.

A great best practice is to avoid spaces or special characters in a folder’s name. Instead create a name without spaces or use hyphens.

For instance, the folder name “My Folder” will become “My%20Folder” in the URL while the folder name “My-Folder” will become “My-Folder”. I will leave it to you to decide what looks best.


Best Practices: Should I place all files within a single Document Library?

This question really ties in with a larger design consideration which is the “Information Architecture” (also known simply as “IA”) which in turn takes overall “volumetrics” into account.

But focusing in just on a single Document Library, Microsoft offer clear guidance on the limits (soft and hard boundaries) when it comes to number of documents within a Document Library. You can read these here.

Irrespective of the statement that a “list can have up to 30 million items and a library can have up to 30 million files and folders” it is probably not a great idea in most cases. Should you have the need to manage very large Document Libraries then please refer to Microsoft’s “Manage large lists and libraries” guidance here.

Our guidance is to avoid the need for such very large Document Libraries and keep library document volume sub 10,000 as a rule of thumb (the old 5,000 rule no longer applies in modern scenarios). Certainly, keep well below the 100,000 mark which is where certain limitations start to kick-in.


You may also be interested in downloading our popular Document Management guide.


The plug

We would not be a product company, if I didn’t plug our product. In particular in the context of this article’s topic. Because, despite providing this advice, the simplest way to manage information at scale across thousands of Site Collections and Document Libraries is to use the Atlas platform as a consistent layer to manage all this.

Author bio

Gabriel Karawani

Gabriel Karawani

My focus is the vision and evolution of our Atlas Digital Workspace for Microsoft Office 365. As one of two co-founders, my role is a wonderful mix of technology and business. I have had the privilege of working with most of our awesome colleagues, clients and partners from day one. I get excited about new technology and helping our clients find ways of doing what they do even better. The Microsoft stack with Office 365, Azure and related services is a key enabler in my world of delivering the best possible digital workspace solution on the planet. Together with our customers and our partners we are driving innovation to take advantage of AI, ML, Cognitive Services, to enable our users to participate, know and achieve more.

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