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Folder vs. Library in SharePoint

I have written a number of posts in previous years explaining the difference between common SharePoint entities like sites and site collections, sites and pages. Understanding those concepts above takes time, but it makes sense. The concept I will explain today takes more time to “sink in”. It is a concept of Folders vs. Document Library.

What’s the difference between a folder and a library in SharePoint?

Most document management systems we have been using over the years all use folders. File shares, DropBox and even Microsoft’s own OneDrive all use folders. We know how they work, they are easy to create and organize information in. By the way, before we go too far, I advise that you check out one my most popular blog post on why folders in SharePoint are bad.

In SharePoint, however, we have another layer to organize content in and that is a document library. True, you can create a single site with a single document library and put all of the company’s folders there, essentially simulating file share, but that is not a great practice. So what is a document library and why you should have many of them? Let me try and explain.

Think of a document library as a file cabinet with folders inside

Folder vs. Library in SharePoint

I remember when I worked for various companies in 1990’s when we were still heavily involved in the paper world, file cabinets were a centerpiece in each office. Some were used to store invoices; some were used for storing engineering drawings, some legal information, some for personal information, etc.

Fast-forward 20 years and now we have electronic folders in place of physical folders and document libraries in place of file cabinets. Let me use an example of Accounting team and how they could use the concept of multiple Document Libraries in SharePoint.

Folder vs. Library in SharePoint

A document library with a number of folders

First, Accounting team would have a dedicated SharePoint site. They could have many sites of course, but let’s keep it simple. On that site, they would have a few document libraries (again, think file cabinets). One for invoices, one for scanned receipts and say one for bank deposit slips. Each library would then have folders or metadata to organize the type of content they would have (invoices, receipts, deposit slips). True, nothing stops them from putting everything in just 1 library (just like in the image above) and have a folder for each type of content. However, by separating content in different libraries, they can also achieve the following benefits:

  • Each library can have different means of file organization. For example, deposit slips library could utilize folders, while invoices can be organized via metadata (customer name, invoice date, etc.)
  • Each library can have unique security. By default, document libraries inherit permissions from the parent (site). But you can have unique permissions if you wish. This way, say, scanned receipts library can be visible to everyone, while, say, invoices would only be visible to select few. Now, it is always better to maintain security at the site level and not break permissions at the library level, but in case you needed this flexibility – it is available.
  • If you are into metadata, each library can have its own mix of content types

If you are now sold on the concept of multiple document libraries before you go ahead and create a site with 25 document libraries, you should also be aware of some of the downsides:

  • When you search in a single document library via search box – you get a nice user interface for search results. However…

Folder vs. Library in SharePoint

  • …Searching across multiple libraries is a somewhat of a challenge as you now have to use site search box and results are presented in less user-friendly format. I have written the whole post dedicated to this very topic – so check it out.
  • Moving and Copying across libraries is not as simple as moving across folders in the same library (though it is getting better with the recent introduction of new Move/Copy functionality).

Best Practices for Document Libraries

  • Do not create too many libraries per site. Use the minimum number possible. When I come to your SharePoint site, if I see 15 document libraries, I will be overwhelmed. I might be confused where to upload the stuff into. I am not trying to say that you should use a single library – but try not to overwhelm the end users with too many selection choices
  • Use logical names for document libraries. If you plan to store invoices in there, call the library “invoices” and not “documents.”
  • Do not break permissions at the library level. If you need unique security – create a separate site
  • Do not use a default library – just create your own ones. Reference this blog post why you should never use default document library

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