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The Basics of SharePoint Document Libraries

Document libraries are a fundamental aspect of pretty much any use of SharePoint. They act as the repository for any and all files. Even page libraries, media libraries, and the like are based on document libraries. So even if you don’t think you’re using them, you likely are. Learn all you need to know with this infographic.
Published on
November 27, 2019

Document libraries are a fundamental aspect of pretty much any use of SharePoint. They act as the repository for any and all files. Even page libraries, media libraries, and the like are based on document libraries. So even if you don’t think you’re using them, you likely are.

Libraries are a specialized type of list and man are they handy. In this post I cover a number of use cases and features that you and all of your colleagues should understand, especially because people regularly get confused on what a library is versus a folder. Click the infographic below or just keep reading.

Document libraries 101

SharePoint document libraries are like super folders. They provide a useful way to separate your files and folders to keep things clean and organized within a SharePoint site. Lots of people ask how they’re different from folders. They are different, and maybe the graphic below comparing sites and libraries to a filing cabinet will clarify any confusion.

Putting libraries to good use

Plan out how you’re going to set up and organize your libraries. Split your libraries up by project if you’re using a team site or separate them by deliverable, product, or process step in a project site. Maybe each of your team members needs one, too? There are a ton of possibilities.

You can create pretty much as many libraries as you’d like in a site. Each library can hold up to 30 million files, but beware of the 5,000 item view threshold. (Google it for more details.) In SharePoint 2013, your size limit is 2 GB per file; in SharePoint 2016, it's 15 GB; and Online, it’s 100 GB.

Just be smart about how you use them and why you need them.Don’t make ad hoc libraries. Use them to stay organized and avoid process creep.


Doc libraries come with a ton of features. Below is a sampling of a few that will provide the most benefit to you.

Getting things done

When in doubt, check the ribbon. The ribbon offers lots of functions that let you change how you work with files, how your files are displayed, and how you interact with the library itself. The ellipses to the right of a file name provides similar functionalities. The buttons that are available will depend on your permissions. Site Owners get more buttons(but also more responsibility).

Permissions and access

Document libraries inherit the permissions from the site they live in, so when you create a library, the same people who can access the site can also access the library and its contents. This is called inherited permissions.

Libraries can have their own permissions, though. You can break inheritance, meaning only certain people have access to a library in a site. You or the Site Owner chose who gets access. The access list can be completely different from that of the parent site.

Folders, sub-folders, and files can also have their own individual permissions. This is called object-level permissions. Although it’s tempting to use special permissions for each library, folder, and even file, permissions get extremely complicated very quickly. It’s better to keep permissions the same within a library than falling into the trap of ad hoc permissions on files and folders. Learn more about permissions best practices here.

Version history

Version history is one of SharePoint’s best features. It automatically keeps a running track of all changes made to any files in your library. Version history does a lot, such as: 

  1. Removing the need to keep multiple copies of a file while it's being developed or reviewed;
  2. Providing an audit trail of who did what to your files so you can track its progress; and
  3. In extreme cases it can help you recover a corrupted file.

In SharePoint 2007, 2010, and 2013, you have to enable version history in a library. In SharePoint 2016 and Online, it’s on automatically. Learn more about version history here.


Folders seem natural, but they’re an arbitrary way for organizing information. Think about the folder structure in your favorite file share. Would you have set it up the same way? Does it make more sense to separate the folders by project? By year? By owner? By branch office?

Metadata in SharePoint document libraries lets you tag files and content with relevant keywords, which then gives you the ability to sort, filter, and group those files whichever way makes sense at the time. This takes a little time to set up, but it beats being stuck with a strategy based on the way one person liked it when they happened to start organizing the files. 

Using metadata makes finding stuff way easier and especially helps out when new people come on the team: they don’t have to learn an arbitrary folder scheme to get to the information they need to do their job.Make your files findable. Use metadata. Read more here.


SharePoint 2013, 2016, and Online all support the ability to concurrently edit files in real time by multiple people. Microsoft calls it co-authoring. It works especially well in Word, OneNote, and PowerPoint. Excel supports it, but not as much as you’d probably like. (Excel is a fickle tool.)

Co-authoring works in most browsers and removes the need forOffice to be installed on a computer, so you can still work on your documents even if you’re using an old computer at a hotel, for example. It works full-fledged in Office 2016 and is mostly supported in Office 2013.

Co-authoring eliminates the regular problem of one person locking a file by not closing it. Co-authoring is complicated, so you should read more about how exactly it works, especially with respect to version history, check in/out, and between different versions of SharePoint and Office. Read more here.

File types

Over the years, SharePoint has improved the number of filetypes it can accept. SharePoint Online and 2016 can accept pretty much all filetypes. SharePoint 2013 has some limitations, and SharePoint 2010 and 2007 have further restrictions (notably, Microsoft Access files). Learn more about SharePoint filetype limits here and size and usage limits here.


Send your documents through automated SharePoint workflows that inform your colleagues when it’s time to provide input or ask your manager to review and approve your stuff. Choose between a serial workflow and parallel workflow. Beware, though: they sometimes require more time to setup than they save.

If you’re using SharePoint Online in Office 365, you have further workflow options with Power Automate (formerly Microsoft Flow). As a reminder, I don’t tackle SharePoint Designer in this blog because most everyday users don’t/shouldn’t use it. That’s why there’s no info here about SPD workflows.

The header photo is licensed CC-BY-SA3.0 by my buddy David Iliff. The source photo is here. And it’s beautiful, so check it out.

Matt Wade
Matt is an engineer-turned-IT nerd and Microsoft MVP. His career began in the nuclear power design field and ended up in SharePoint adoption, pretty much by mistake. He’s best known for his SharePoint and Microsoft 365 infographics—especially the Periodic Table of Office 365—and advocating Microsoft Teams as the modern workplace.

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