From folders to SharePoint libraries and metadata

There are good reasons to use folders in SharePoint, but there are also good reasons not to use folders in SharePoint.

We know it might seem a little scary or just too hard to give up folders, but don’t panic. This article talks you through libraries and metadata, and why metadata can be a better option than folders.

What’s wrong with folders?

Everyone is familiar with folders, people understand them and know how to use them. Relying on folders though can have some challenges.

The number one challenge is that a folder-based architecture is not flexible; you have only one way of organising and displaying your documents.

Let’s take a look at this example.

Every month you get three bills: water, electricity and gas.

There is a folder icon named Water and has a picture of a bath tub There is a folder icon named electricity and has a picture of a power line There is a folder icon named gas and has a picture of a gas cannister

How do you organise these bills in folders?

By month?

List of folder icons with January, February and March as the main folder names, followed by sub folders listed as Gas, water and electricity

Or by bill type?

List of folder icons with gas, water and electricity as the main folder names, followed by sub folders listed as January, February and March

In fact, there is no right or wrong answer.

One day you want to check your March bills. Great! Folders organised by month work fine.

Later you want to review all your water bills. Well, now you wish your files were organised by bill type so you don’t have to dig through each folder to find them.

Other challenges with folders include:

  • A nested folder structure is not effective for managing lots of documents. The more documents you have the more complicated your nested folder hierarchy becomes – it doesn’t matter how well your folders are structured.
  • Documents stored in nested folders are not searchable, sort-able or filterable. To find a document you need to know the path and potentially click through lots of levels to reach it.
  • Documents can get duplicated. Because different people can have different ideas about how documents should be organised, quite often they save similar documents (and sometimes the same document!) in different locations.

So what’s the alternative?

Now you know the challenges with folders, let’s talk about libraries and metadata in SharePoint. A SharePoint library is a place where you save your documents. It’s like a big folder for all your documents. What makes libraries valuable is metadata.

Metadata is information about an object, in our case information about a document. Metadata describes your document and distinguishes it from other documents. You can think of metadata like a label. When you add metadata, you attach a label to your document so that you and anybody else can find this document later and can understand what it is about without opening it.

In our previous example both the bill type (water, gas, electricity) and the month are metadata. Now all bills can be saved in one library called ‘Bills’.

How do I find documents if they are all in one big library?

In SharePoint metadata is stored in columns which makes it like a big table.

SharePoint library containing bill file name, bill type and applicable month

You can use columns to group, filter and sort documents like you do in a spreadsheet.

SharePoint library with option to group by bill type

Using these tools, you can easily display documents in the way that suits your tasks and preferences.

By using the grouping function, you can replicate a more familiar experience and display documents like they are in folders.

SharePoint library showing bills grouped by type

You can easily switch between views using filters. Going back to our previous example, you can display documents by month or by type in just a few clicks.

Filtered by water bills:

SharePoint library showing bills filtered by water

Filtered by month:

SharePoint library filtered by month

Hopefully you can see that metadata is a simple but powerful tool. Even though all your documents are stored in one location, you can use metadata to help you more easily find what you need.

Can’t decide between folders and metadata? Give us a call and we’ll talk you through the good and the bad. We’re a SharePoint agency in Brisbane.