Folders in SharePoint

The folder is an old bogeyman in the SharePoint world. Anyone who's spent time working with columns and views on a SharePoint library understands the benefit of abandoning the folder paradigm. You should encourage your site owners to disallow folders on document libraries by default.

Some would go so far as to say "Folders are Evil" when it comes to SharePoint, but it's important to know why they are evil, and under what circumstances. There are still situations in which folders are actually necessary in SharePoint.

Why Folders Are Used

You shouldn't tell somebody that SharePoint views are better than folders if you don't know what the advantages are to each.

To start, let's review why people use folders and the advantages to doing so.

  1. Familiarity: Folders are a familiar metaphor for computer users; every personal computer operating system utilizes some sort of hierarchical file system.
  2. Consistency: Everybody sees the same thing when looking at a folder structure. If you tell someone a path to a file, you know that they'll be able to find the document it points to.
  3. Metadata Security: A folder is a securable object. Since it also represents a piece of metadata, folders allow you to apply permissions to all documents corresponding to that metadata.
  4. Managed Navigation: The tiers of folders available in a directory determine how a user navigates within them. Navigating a file system could be compared to using a software wizard, in that a limited set of navigation options are available to you at any time, exposed sequentially. Each folder represents a different--and relevant--piece of metadata for you to limit your results. Which business segment do you want? Which department, which document category, and which year do you want?
  5. Easy Metadata: Folders generally tell something about the documents they contain, some piece of metadata that helps users decide where to save or find documents. Because folders can be nested, you can potentially learn a lot about a document based on where it falls within a directory.  When someone drops a document in that folder, they don't have to fill out some form explaining what the document is... that's obvious from the context.
  • Example: A document being saved in a nested directory structure like "Finance -> Accounts Payable -> Invoices -> FY2010 -> Unpaid Invoices."
    Based on its location, the document is obviously an unpaid 2010 invoice for the Finance Accounts Payable Department.

Now let's talk about why SharePoint folks get ulcers when folders creep into document libraries.

Why Folders Shouldn't Be Used

When used properly on a file system, folders represent metadata. The disadvantages of folders become apparent when a dedicated metadata scheme is available, as in SharePoint.

  1. One Parent Folder per Element (Metadata Limitations): Folders are locked into a top-down, parent-child folder structure. If two different folders would apply to a document, but they are not in the same hierarchy, the document must either be duplicated in both (creating version control challenges) or be missing from folders where it would logically be expected.
  2. Limited Capacity To Inform: The metadata provided by a folder is limited to what can be represented in its name. More complex information cannot be easily shoehorned into the title of a folder, such as dates, people, and URLs.
  3. Broken Links When Changing Folders: When you change the title of a folder, or when you move a document from one folder to another, the file location changes appropriately. Anybody with old links to the original file path will be unable to get to the document. This makes folders troublesome for tracking changeable metadata, such as the approval status of a document.
  4. Tedious Navigation: The counterpart to the "Managed Navigation" advantage, it takes multiple clicks to get to desired content. The problem gets worse as more metadata gets applied, which discourages people from being too specific with categorizing files.
  5. Inflexible View: The counterpart to the "Consistency" advantage in using folders, using folders to organize content assumes that all users have the same mental model for content organization. Folders don't allow easy sorting, filtering, or the creation of ad hoc views of content. Folders assume users know today how they might want to see content tomorrow.
  6. Lengthy Filenames: The folder hierarchy is visible in any file's path. To be accessible via a web interface, such as SharePoint, the file path must be within the 255 character limit for URLs. Thus, if a file is buried under too many folders, it becomes impossible to access from a web browser.

Acceptable Alternatives to Folders

There are two alternatives to folders in the SharePoint world. The first and most popular is to use document libraries that utilize SharePoint columns and views. The second alternative is to use Document Sets.

Using a combination of SharePoint columns and views, you can organize the documents in a way that mimics the old folder structure while introducing more flexibility for discovering or summarizing documents.

When to Use Document Libraries: It may be tempting for users to just think of document libraries as folders, creating a new library for every folder they have. If done carelessly, this can be worse than adding nested folders to a single document library. Document libraries act as container objects within SharePoint, and additional libraries should only be created to represent documents that are inherently different for any of the following reasons:

    1. Different Security: The documents are accessed differently by different groups. In SharePoint, permissions can be set at the document library level painlessly.
    2. Different  Types of Metadata: The documents have not only different metadata, but different TYPES of metadata. If there are columns that would be relevant to some documents but meaningless to others, they might not belong in the same library.
    • NOTE: Instead of creating different libraries to deal with content that requires different columns, you can add multiple Content Types within the same library. That will be a good topic for a future post.

When to Use Columns: When trying to convert folders to metadata, the first step is to identify what purpose each folder serves. Do the different tiers represent different categories of metadata that could be represented by columns?

    • Sometimes a single SharePoint field can replace multiple levels of folders, such as a date field instead of nested month and year folders.
    • Other times, different types of metadata are represented by folders at the same level, and will require multiple columns to reconcile.
    • Try to be specific with column names; don't use "Category" and "Subcategory" when something more meaningful would apply.
    • If a piece of metadata can be organized hierarchically, consider using the managed metadata (term store) column type

When to Use Views: You are encouraged to set up views with filters in place of folders. If desired, the "group by" option lets you create up to two collapsible groupings in a view that can mimic a two-tier folder structure. 

Another option when replacing folders is Document Sets. In brief, a document set is a type of folder that supports the SharePoint functionality we all know and love, such as metadata and workflows.

Exceptions When Folders SHOULD be Used

The advantages to using columns for metadata do not always outweigh the advantages of folders. There are specific situations in which having folders in SharePoint is useful, and some scenarios where it is the only option to achieve desired functionality.

  1. Security: One of the challenges of SharePoint's security model is that it makes it hard to apply permissions based on metadata. Folders provide a way to place different permissions on all documents within a category.
  2. Avoiding the List View Item Threshold: When a list gets big--over 5000 items--SharePoint limits the types of operations you can do. Essentially, you can't have an unsorted single view show more than 5000 items, and sorting/filtering operations get restricted on views that do show more than 5000. The limit is per container, however, which means folders are a viable option for breaking your library into manageable chunks.
  3. Duplicate File Names: You can't have two documents with the same filename in a SharePoint library. Sometimes systems need to add documents automatically, and folders are the best way to avoid naming collisions.
    • Example: adding pictures to a wiki page. When SharePoint uploads the image to a Site Assets library, it automatically creates a folder specifically for the wiki page and puts the image inside it.
  4. Legacy Support: In some cases, the file path is the only way for a legacy application to provide additional information about a document. While Office applications can provide an interface for SharePoint columns, many other applications were designed specifically for a traditional file system.
  5. Location-Based Metadata (Default Column Values): For each folder in a library, you can have different default column values. This lets users drop a document into a folder and have the appropriate metadata filled in by default.

Considerations and Recommendations When Using Folders

  • If you do use folders in SharePoint, you should try not to go more than two layers deep.
  • You should not place folders within document sets, or vice versa; the breadcrumb navigation was designed under the assumption that document sets are at the root level of the library.
  • Don't use folders on lists that are not document libraries
  • Folders cannot have much additional metadata applied to them (try document sets if you need that functionality)

Note: By default, documents buried under folders don't show up in views of a library--the containing folders show up instead. To get around this, in the settings for the view you can specify whether to show all items without folders. This is true for document sets as well.

Comparison of Document Containers

Libraries, folders, and document sets each offer different capabilities as containers for documents. Refer to the following table to identify differences between the three:

You can… Libraries Folders Document Sets
Set permissions on Container Yes Yes Yes
Sort and filter up to 5000 items within container Yes Yes Yes
Set default column values per container Yes Yes Yes
Easily modify the URL of the container No Yes Yes
Control content types available for items within container Yes No Yes
Provide a description of the container Yes No Yes
Specify document templates available within container Yes No Yes
Assign additional metadata to the container No No Yes
Run container through a workflow as if it were an item No No Yes
Capture a snapshot of all items in the container No No Yes
Provision container with default content No No Yes
Synchronize a column value across all items in container No No Yes
Automate creation of containers with the Content Organizer No Yes No
Add folders to container Yes Yes No
Store pages within container Yes Yes No
Switch between multiple views within container Yes Yes No
Create new container from Explorer View No Yes No
Make workflows available for items in the specific container Yes No No
Add document sets to container Yes No No
Rename container without changing its URL Yes No No

Comments (1) -

6/4/2014 2:06:57 PM #

I know I shouldnt create folders.  From reading multiple sites for the last 4 hours, I now know there are a host of choices for creating a site with the appearance of nested folders - without actually using folders.
However not one site tells me HOW to do it.  Not one site gives a step-by-step EXAMPLE of how to do this.
Not even the Microsoft site gives useful examples.  And the fellows on YouTube move so fast that its impossible to actually follow what they are doing.
Thanks, JUlia

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