SharePoint Document Libraries: The Inside Scoop

Whenever people think about SharePoint, the first thing that comes to mind is document management. I can’t tell you how many times I meet people and they say “SharePoint yeah – isn’t that for managing documents?”. Technically this is true, but there’s so much more to it than that. However, since document management seems to be the first thing that people think of, I figured that I’d do a post about what you can do with SharePoint document libraries.

To start, this section is to answer anyone who prefers share drives over SharePoint document libraries. If you’ve worked with a large group of people using a share drive, you know that they quickly devolve into a myriad of folders, reports, photos, and randomly organized project folders. This isn’t a reflection on anyone’s poor organizational skill at all. After all, since you can’t see what is inside of a folder, until you open it – how can you possibly keep all sub folders organized? SharePoint has all of the solutions for this:
Columns:

Columns are a great feature of SharePoint. Since most people are guilty of tacking on names and letters to the end of a document to show who edited it last and what version it is – you will like this solution. A column is simply meta data that can be added onto any item in a list in SharePoint. In the case of a document library they come automatically with two columns: title and description. By default SharePoint keeps track of the creator, person that last modified, and when it was last modified – so there’s no reason to have special columns for that. However, despite these columns, you can add your own columns. For example, a notes column for members to leave notes to one another about the document. I often use a “type of resource” column to give people a chance to code the document. For example – you might want people to select if the document is minutes, agenda, report, or other. By doing this – with a view you can instantly see all documents coded as minutes, agendas , or reports ( even if they are in sub folders!).

Also important to note – the file name and the title of a document are two completely different things. You can have normal file names in SharePoint but have descriptive titles and descriptions columns. This makes it easier for people to see what files they are really looking at.

Views:

Views are available to all SharePoint lists, but they make the document library especially powerful. By using columns, you can create views based on those columns. For example, I may want to have a view that shows a user all documents that they have modified. I may want a view for all documents that are pending approval. I may want a view that shows all documents in alphabetical order and another one in chronological order from the time that they were created. Views allow you to take an entire set of documents and display them in different ways to different people.

Folders:

Yes folders still exist in SharePoint! You can combine them with columns as well. This means that you can have folders which are familiar to your users, but also use columns so that you can benefit from views. Here’s a little known fact: when setting up a view, you can actually specify whether folders should appear or be collapsed. This means that you can “hide” folders when you want to see all documents but also show folders, when you want to.

folder options in views
folder options in views

This is done when configuring a view. You simply scroll down to the folder section and select your choice. Show items inside folders will show your folders. Show all items without folders will hide your folders. Please note** In both cases, you will still be able to see the columns you’ve decided to show. Therefore you can have folders and columns in the same view.

Content Approval:

Sometimes you will want all of your team members to submit documents, but as a manager, you don’t want people to share those documents until you have reviewed and approved them. Content approval allows everyone to upload documents, but limits everyone else from seeing them until they are approved.

Versioning:

One of SharePoint’s strongest features is version control. Finally there is a way to create accountability and secure modifications to documents. The version feature in SharePoint is robust, giving you a wide range of options. With versioning you can ensure that no changes to documents are lost. This is great for collaboration. You can easily roll back to previous versions and even have users submit comments with each version. You can then scroll through the previous versions getting quick summaries of what comments were left with each copy. This allows multiple people to work on a single document without fear of anyone overwriting someone else’s work.

version options in sharepoint
version options in sharepoint

From the version options menu you can turn versioning on and off. You also have the option to determine how you want the versions to be logged. You can choose major and minor reviews. This is the difference between going 1, 2, 3, 4 etc in version numbers to 1.0 , 1.1 , 1.2, 2.0, 3.0, 3.1, 3.2….etc.

It’s important to determine how many versions you want to keep. It’s tempting to just keep it unlimited – but choose a realistic number. For example – will you need to roll back 45 versions of  a document? You can also select how many drafts to keep. Now I should clarify, the 1.1 , 1.2, 1.3 are all considered drafts. Major versions have whole numbers, 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 ….etc.

You can also determine who gets to see the draft items in the library. You can allow any user to see them, only their creators, or only people with approval rights.

You can require that documents be checked out before they are edited. But I’ll discuss that next.

Version control also gives a good measure of accountability. Not that we ever expect it, but version control keeps a footprint of every action , protecting you from someone who may maliciously  modify a file.

Check In / Check Out:

Check In / Check Out is a wonderful feature. This allows a team member to mark a document as “mine for editing” and it restricts anyone else from editing the document until they are done. When combined with versioning you get a very strong solution for collaborating on documents. While a document is checked out, other people can see the previous version, but they can’t make edits. They also can’t see the version that is being worked on. I highly recommend turning this feature on.

Templates:

So what if you are creating a library to hold a certain type of report? You may want users to first download a template and then start compiling their reports. With SharePoint you can actually set a template for a document library. This template could be, for example, a blank report that team members can use to fill out.

template options for a document library
template options for a document library

Under advanced settings, there are template options. You can simply click on the Edit Template link to customize this to whatever content you want. This is extremely useful because once this feature is set, when a user clicks “new” they will automatically get a document formatted with this template. You will have saved the step of having to first get the template document and then save it to the document library before they start working on the file.

Workspaces:

Document workspaces are mini sites designed to allow advanced collaboration on a document. While your IT policy may restrict this, because it can create a situation where you have thousands of miniature sites, the functionality is pretty cool.

Creating a document workspace menu options
Creating a document workspace menu options

You can access this by clicking the arrow in the menu box around your file name. Then you click on Send To and then Create Document Workspace.

This creates a sub site where you have the option to work on a document, assign tasks, manage links, view members of the workspace, and collaborate further.

Once you have finished your collaboration and finalized your document, you can send it back to your main team site. Just imagine the implications for business processes that require extensive revision of documents by multiple people!

Document Work Space Send Options
Document Work Space Send Options

Once the document has been finalized, simply open the document menu options, go to Send To and then Publish to Source and the document will be sent back to the main team site.

Workflows:

I won’t go too deep into workflows, but I’ll try to give a quick overview. Workflows are just AWESOME! They are a way to trigger actions in SharePoint when something happens. For example, what if you want three people to provide feedback on a document when it is uploaded? You could use a feedback workflow to manage this process. The workflow would notify people that they need to provide feedback, create a task in a task list asking for their review, send reminders when it isn’t completed on time, and notify you that all feedback has been received. Just for good measure, the workflow would automatically collate those responses and make them available instantly. That’s just one example of a workflow. You may want to route a report to multiple team sites when it has been approved. This can be done with a workflow as well. There are endless options when creating workflows.

Alerts:

Alerts are a quick and dirty way to get email notifications when something has changed in your document library. I’ll save the details for alerts for another day – but I will mention the following things:

  1. You can set alerts for yourself as well as for others.
  2. You can choose when to receive alerts (daily, weekly, instantly)
  3. You can choose what types of alerts you want to receive ( when something’s added, deleted, edited, or even if someone has done something to a document you created or modified)

Explorer View:

For those users who are still accustomed to viewing their documents like a windows folder, there is an explorer view option that is default. This will display your document library like a network folder. Here’s a great tip – when dumping large amounts of files into SharePoint or trying to move a large amount out – you can click and drag files in and out of the explorer view.

Recycle Bin:

Network drives do not have recycle bins. Therefore when you delete a file – it’s truly gone. Any good IT setup will have some kind of backup solution, but it’s costly to have to back up huge amounts of data to retrieve one file. SharePoint provides a recycle bin within the team site as well as an additional one in the Central Administration. By doing this, you can protect your content from being truly destroyed.

Advanced Permissions:

You have the option to really set your permissions in SharePoint to a granular level. You can limit the ability to upload, edit, read, approve, and delete files across the document library. With the new version of SharePoint (2007) you can also set granular item-level permissions. Therefore you set broad permissions for the entire library and then have different rules for individual documents. No share drive gives you that much control.

Warnings:

So I figured I’d give some tips  and point out pitfalls for good document library management.

  • The first is that there is a 1000 item limit in folders in document libraries.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t have over 1000 items in a folder, but that your document library performance will start to go quirky. If you are using columns, this should be a non issue. After all, you can create views where you hide the folders. So don’t be afraid to use folders, and keep the 1000 limit number in mind.
  • You should avoid crazy file names. The number one problem I’ve seen with people having issues with uploading files is that they put punctuation in file names. My advice is to never put punctuation in a file name. I’d stick to letters, numbers, spaces, and underscores.  SharePoint is web based so things like ampersands “&” can cause all kinds of havoc.
  • You should avoid long file names. Since SharePoint is web based there is a limit to the number of characters that a URL can have. Your file names fall into this category.
  • Avoid excessively deep folder structures. Your folder names fall into that character limit as well – so after a while, if you go willy nilly with your folder creation, SharePoint will start to tell you “No more folders!”. My advice has always been this – if you need more than 2 – 3 folder levels then you need multiple document libraries!
  • Always use titles and description fields – they make your document library easy to use.
  • When using the explorer view: If you have required fields your documents will automatically be checked out to you when you upload documents with the explorer view. To avoid this you should not make any fields required. If you must make them required, you should make a datasheet view that will allow users to quickly update the documents and check them back in. This problem can be a nuisance.

Final Thoughts:

Hopefully I’ve made a strong case for this – but I hope from reading this you can see why share drives are completely antiquated. By utilizing document libraries to their full capability, you can improve efficiency by providing team members with endless ways to find their resources. You can also create programmatic solutions for team members to collaborate effectively while preventing version control problems, unwanted loss of information and accountability. You also have ways to organize information in ways that no folder structure on a share drive could ever do!

SharePoint as a survey collection tool

At some point in our careers, we will probably all need to create an online survey for our jobs. Often the first bet is to run to Survey Monkey or one of its brethren. Survey Monkey is a great service, but it does involve going to an outside vendor for your Survey needs. If you are lucky enough to have SharePoint as your web content management system then you are also lucky enough to be able to use its survey functionality on your public facing website. We have used it as a tool that allows us to survey our users using our SharePoint site. We were able to use the features of SharePoint with our survey solution. Finally no sending people to another URL to answer our surveys! Please note that this article is for SharePoint 2007 (MOSS).

There are quite a few configuration issues to address for this to work.  Now this posting assumes that you know what the survey feature in SharePoint is. If not – please click here – before you continue reading. That link will take you to a pretty good how-to on creating surveys in SharePoint. This post  also assumes that you are trying to put up a survey that people who are not logged in can access.

Creating your survey:

First create your survey. Perhaps on another day – I’ll create a post about the different tips and tricks when creating surveys. For example, you can set branching order, skip patterns, different question formats, and page breaks. By configuring the security settings you can allow users to come back and update their responses or allowing them to see only their responses. In most cases, you’d want to hide the responses from users.

Note: Do not use page breaks in your survey  – while this feature is great – it wreaks havoc when doing anonymous access surveys in MOSS.  Also – do not use branching logic. This feature works perfectly when users have logged in  – but it breaks down pathetically if you try it on anonymous users. To give some perspective, if there’s anything that SharePoint needs to “remember” about a user – works when a user is logged in but is unreliable if a user is using anonymous access.

Turning Anonymous Access On:

Your SharePoint site will need to have anonymous access on. Ideally if your site is public facing, you’ve already done this. If you haven’t done this – then you will want to read this article before you continue. In case you don’t know what anonymous access is – it’s a setting that allows people who are not signed into your SharePoint site to view the content. Remember that anonymous access needs to be turned on for your survey list as well.

Turning the LockDown Feature Off:

Make sure that the Lock Down Feature is turned off. The lock down feature is a setting in SharePoint that is used for public facing sites with anonymous access turned on. It prevents anonymous users from accessing any of the forms pages in SharePoint. For example – the upload new document options! However, (and this is extremely important) this feature must be turned off for anonymous surveys to work. After all, how can a user submit their answers to their survey if they aren’t allowed to submit information. You will want to talk with your SharePoint administrator about this and make sure you aren’t violating your IT security policies. Here is a good article on the Lock Down feature.

Configuring your survey permissions:

You will need to make the following changes to the settings for your survey:

1 – Under General Setting –> Title Description and Navigation

SP General settings - turn multiple responses on
SP General settings - turn multiple responses on

Make sure you have these settings:

Do not display the survey on the quick launch.

Do not show user names in the survey results. Since your submissions will be from anonymous people, there’s no reason to track this.

Now this is the most important setting here : Allow multiple responses. The multiple response restriction feature doesn’t work well for anonymous surveys.

Once this is done, click Save and let’s get started on the next settings.

2 – Under Advanced Setting –>

Advanced Settings - read and edit access
Advanced Settings - read and edit access

Set the read access to limit responses to only their own. This will hide your responses from being accessible to your registered members. If a user tries to view all responses or view graphic responses, they will be prompted to sign in.

Set the edit access for users to edit only their own. This is counterintuitive. Although you are giving them access to edit their own, since there is no username, they won’t be able to go back to any of the previous answers.  So I want to be clear: your users will not be able to resume answering their survey responses. So it’s one take to answer your survey. The plus side is that your users won’t time out since they aren’t logged in.

Finally, set your search settings to leave the survey responses out of the search results. I’m sure you wouldn’t want people searching your site and seeing search results.

3 – Under Permissions and Management –> Permissions for this Survey

Surveys Permissions Options
Surveys Permissions Options

Look at the Permissions and Management section and click on Permissions for this survey.

Anonymous access menu options
Anonymous access menu options

Under the settings,  click on Anonymous Access. From here you will be able to let users add or view items in the list. You can determine if users can only add items, edit items, view items, etc.

Anonymous survey permission options
Anonymous survey permission options

Make sure that you allow users to add items and also allow users to view items.

Final Steps :

You are almost done with your survey. I want to spell out a few things :

  1. Do not use page breaks in your survey – users will get kicked out and be unable to continue the survey.
  2. Alerts don’t work on a list when you have restricted users from viewing all results.
  3. When you are ready to view all of the results, close the survey down and then revert the permissions.

If you try to implement this, please leave a comment letting me know how this works out for you. If you want to see this in action – just leave a comment and I might be able to show you an implementation.