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SharePoint lists vs. libraries

One of the most frequent questions you get from new SharePoint users is on the topic of SharePoint lists vs. libraries and the difference between the two. It all comes down to naming convention in SharePoint, which is partially the reason for confusion. Let me explain.

SharePoint lists vs. libraries. What’s the difference?

What is the SharePoint list?

Any web part in SharePoint that holds content is a SharePoint list. The example below shows a Contacts web part

Team Contacts

All it is, it’s a table just like Excel, to store contacts. Just like a table in Excel, it contains rows and columns. Rows for data, columns for metadata. In SharePoint, this table is called a SharePoint list.

Tasks web part below is another example of a SharePoint list.

Tasks Web Part List

SharePoint Calendar is also a SharePoint list.

Team Calendar

It might not be evident by looking at a month view above, but you can also view the same events in a table-like format

Team Calendar List

Once again, rows and columns. So SharePoint calendar also happens to be a SharePoint list. And so on, you get the idea.

So now that we are clear on what is SharePoint list, let’s clarify what the SharePoint library is.

What is a SharePoint library?

A library in SharePoint is essentially a special list, explicitly created to store documents. That’s all it is. It is a special web part that already exists in SharePoint (called Document Library) that allows storing documents and has all the functionality around documents (document preview, versioning, check-in/check-out, document approval, file type breakdown, etc.)

Document LIbrary Example

Just like any other list, document library has rows (for documents) and columns for metadata. Makes sense?

Shall I use a list or library to store documents?

So the obvious question is, “Shall I use list or library to store documents”? The answer is always the same: Document Library. Many users make the mistake of using a SharePoint List to store documents. The reason for that is because lists allow you to attach documents to the items. The example below shows that ability to attach documents to a task in a Task Web Part.

Attach Documents List1

While this is OK on an occasional basis (i.e., you want to attach some files to tasks in Tasks Web part), if you are trying to organize documents – you must use the SharePoint Document Library, as you get all the document management functionality you need for your documents.

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