Note from Dan Holme: Mikhail Dikov has detailed a fantastic approach to taming large and diverse document libraries: implementing folder content types. Here it is!

SharePoint Folders Need More Love

By Mikhail Dikov

Most of you SharePoint enthusiasts probably know quite a bit about content types in SharePoint. They provide the means to organize metadata in an extremely flexible manner and provide the context for workflows, custom menus, and document templates. However, due to the document centric nature of Microsoft Office and SharePoint, the most commonly used and discussed content types are the document content types. Well, there is another lesser-known character in the content type story of SharePoint--it is the folder content type.

One reason why the folder content type is less popular is that the default SharePoint installation comes with only one of them--the Folder content type. Compared to dozens of out-of-the-box document content types, the Folder is clearly outnumbered. So let's have a closer look at this lonely hero and create a couple of folder content types so that we can find out how to use them to further enhance the user experience and data management of a document library.

To put things into perspective, let's look at how the fictional environmental foundation Rain Forest can use folder content types to improve its existing document library. The foundation staff stores all documents in a document library and they already use several document content types to support their activities. The document types are separated into two functional groups:

  • Project Documents (Additional Fields: Due Date, Assigned To)
    • Application for Grant (Word document)
    • Financial Memorandum (Excel document)
    • Formal Acceptance Document (Word document)
  • Internal Documents (Additional Fields: Contact, Status)
    • Purchase Order (Word document)
    • Invoice (Excel document)

The document library looks very familiar, and all document types are listed in the New menu:

The IT team of Rain Forest also defined some views based on document content type to make the filtering of each document type group easier and to be able to display content type specific fields such as Due Date and Assigned To:

If you're not familiar with document content types, this article shows the basics. For more information on how to create views, check out the following article.

All documents are stored in the root and occasionally employees will create folders at their discretion. However, with time the clutter of folders makes locating documents really hard. All users also notice considerable slow down in view performance. After a few months, the root folder contains more than 4000 documents and is expected to grow. What can be done? This is when the little known character from our SharePoint story--the folder content type--comes in to help.

One reason for the performance hit is that folders in SharePoint have some limitations by design. For details on how the number of items affects performance, check out this article. Nevertheless if we partition the documents by financial quarters or other perpetual attributes, we can keep the total number of documents in a given folder within the high performance zone. That’s why we decide to create a folder for internal documents and project documents using the respective folder content types for every quarter of the year.

Furthermore, we can provide some structure and boundaries for the employees, so that they can't create folders anywhere in the document library. To help users locate documents, we’ll use a great feature of SharePoint, which allows us to bind views to a specific folder content type. This will provide context for each folder, so that when a user enters a folder with internal documents, the view will automatically change to display relevant metadata.

First let’s create a folder content type for each of our document groups. The steps are no different than creating any other content type. The only difference is that our content type will inherit from the Folder content type.

You can add specific metadata to each of the newly created content types, but for this walk-through, we’ll use the existing columns.

Next, let’s add the folder content types to our document library:

In addition, we would like to remove the default Folder command in the New menu, so that only our custom folder options are available. To do that, open the advanced settings of the document library and disable the New Folder option.

After these changes, we'll add our two new folder entries to the New menu.

Now, when a user wants to create a new folder for the next quarter, he or she will select the appropriate folder types from the New menu, and give the folder a descriptive name such as Internal Q1 2008. The process of provisioning a new folder can be automated and extended by using calculated fields or other programming techniques.

To provide the appropriate views, we create one view for the root folder and separate, unique views for each folder content type. The root view will display only folders from the newly defined content types.

Each custom folder content type will have a view that displays metadata specific to the type of document contained in the folder. These folder views are marked as default but are assigned to the specific folder content type.

Let’s see the result by creating a folder of each type.

You’ll notice that if you click the folder Internal Q1 2008, the view automatically will change to the Internal Documents view; similarly opening the folder Project Q1 2008 will change the view to the view Project Documents.

To add additional context sensitive behavior, you can also limit the New menu items displayed for each individual folder, so that only Internal documents show in the New menu of the corresponding folder. From the drop down menu of each folder select Change New Button Order, and hide the appropriate document types.

When you enter the folder you’ll notice that only the contextually correct New menu items exist.

Similarly you can hide the documents from the new menu of the root folder. Open the document library settings and in the content type section click Change new button order and default content type. Hide all but the folder content types.

From now on, the dedicated volunteers of Rain Forest can rest assured that they can locate documents easily and that the performance of their document library is going to be stable. Furthermore, the IT Pro of the foundation has some great ideas about how to add custom menus for each folder content type, so that actions applicable to all documents in a folder can be executed faster and in the proper context. There are also many opportunities to use item event handlers and the SharePoint DOM and workflow with folder content types to further extend the application. This SharePoint story certainly does not end here.

Mikhail Dikov is a senior software engineer at Global 360 and MVP for Microsoft Office SharePoint Server with background in CMS and BPM software. Mikhail brings more than 8 years experience in Microsoft technologies such as .NET, ASP.NET and more than 12 years of IT experience. Current interests include BPM, BI, SharePoint, .Net and AJAX. Mikhail is a frequent speaker at code camps in Florida and an active member of the Space Coast Dot Net User Group Blog.