List vs. document library SharePoint - when should we create a list or document library

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In this “List vs. Document Library SharePoint” article, we will learn about what a list and document library are in SharePoint Online and when to use which one. SharePoint, Microsoft’s robust collaboration and content management platform, provides an array of features to help organize, store, and share information effectively within an organization. One of the fundamental decisions to make while setting up SharePoint sites is choosing between using a list or a document library to manage data.

Understanding the differences and the optimal use cases for lists and document libraries is crucial for optimizing collaboration and efficiency within SharePoint. In this article, we’ll delve deeper into the distinctions between lists and document libraries and provide real-time use cases to guide you in making informed decisions.

List vs. Document Library SharePoint: When should we create a List or Document Library?

First, let us understand what a list and document library are in SharePoint and what they offer.

Lists in SharePoint

In SharePoint, a list is a fundamental and versatile organizational tool used to store, manage, and display information in a structured and accessible manner. It’s one of the core features that makes SharePoint a robust collaboration and data management platform. A SharePoint list is essentially a collection of related items, where each item represents a row of data, and each column within the list represents a specific piece of information associated with the item.

Here are the key components and features of a list in SharePoint:

  • Items: An item in a SharePoint list is a single entry that represents a unit of data. For example, in a task management list, each item could represent a specific task with associated details like task name, due date, status, etc.
  • Columns: Columns define the attributes or properties of each item in the list. They represent specific pieces of information, such as text, numbers, dates, choices, attachments, and more. Columns help in categorizing and organizing the data within the list.
  • Views: Views allow users to customize how the data in the list is presented. You can create different views to display specific columns, apply sorting and filtering, and define the display style to suit different user needs.
  • Permissions: SharePoint lists have security and permissions settings that allow administrators to control who can view, edit, or delete items within the list. This helps in managing data privacy and access control.
  • Validation Rules: Lists support validation rules that allow you to define specific criteria or conditions that data must meet before being entered into the list. This helps maintain data integrity and consistency.
  • Workflow Integration: SharePoint lists can be integrated with workflows to automate business processes associated with the list, such as sending email notifications, assigning tasks, and more.
  • Custom Forms: You can create custom forms for adding or editing list items, tailoring the user experience and capturing data in a way that fits your organization’s needs. List forms can be customized in many ways, like Power Apps, JSON Formatting, Nintex Forms, InfoPath Forms, etc.
  • Metadata: Metadata, or column properties, can be added to each column to provide additional information about the data being stored. This enhances search capabilities and improves data organization.

Use Cases for SharePoint Lists:

Following are few use cases for SharePoint lists:

  • Task Management: Create a list to manage tasks for a team, with columns for task name, due date, assigned person, status, etc.
  • Issue Tracking: Track and manage issues or bugs within a project, recording details such as severity, description, steps to reproduce, and resolution status.
  • Contact Directory: Maintain a list of contacts within an organization, including details like name, email, phone number, and department.
  • Event Calendar: Create an event calendar to list upcoming events, workshops, or meetings, with columns for event name, date, time, and location.
  • Inventory Tracking: Manage and track inventory items in a retail or warehouse setting, including product name, category, quantity in stock, supplier information, etc.

Lists in SharePoint provide a structured and organized way to store and manage various types of data, enabling teams to collaborate effectively and streamline business processes within an organization.

Document Libraries in SharePoint

In SharePoint, a document library is a central location within a SharePoint site where you can securely store, organize, manage, and share various types of files and documents. It’s a fundamental feature designed to facilitate efficient document management and collaboration within an organization or team. Document libraries allow users to upload files, set metadata, collaborate on documents, control versioning, and implement workflows, making them a powerful tool for content management.

Here are the key components and features of a document library in SharePoint:

  • Documents: Document libraries are primarily used to store a wide range of document types, including Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, PDFs, images, videos, and more.
  • Folders: Folders can be used to organize documents within a document library, providing a hierarchical structure for better categorization and management.
  • Metadata: Metadata, or column properties, can be associated with documents to provide additional context or information. This can include details such as document type, author, creation date, department, or any custom information relevant to the organization.
  • Version Control: Document libraries offer version control, allowing multiple versions of a document to be stored. This feature is crucial for tracking changes, reverting to previous versions, and maintaining an audit trail.
  • Permissions and Access Control: Administrators can configure permissions at the document library level, controlling who can view, edit, delete, or share documents. This ensures data security and compliance.
  • Check-in and Check-out: Users can check out a document for editing, preventing others from making changes during that time. Once editing is complete, the document can be checked back in.
  • Collaboration Features: Document libraries facilitate real-time collaboration on documents, allowing multiple users to work on a document simultaneously, ensuring seamless collaboration and increased productivity.
  • Workflows: Workflows can be associated with document libraries to automate processes related to document approval, review, and other actions based on specific triggers or conditions.
  • Search and Discovery: Document libraries support powerful search capabilities, enabling users to quickly find and access documents based on metadata, content, and other properties.

Use Cases for Document Libraries:

Following are few use cases for SharePoint Document Libraries:

  • Document Repository: Use a document library as a centralized repository to store all organizational documents, making it easy to access, search, and manage files.
  • Team Collaboration: Create document libraries for various teams or departments, allowing them to collaborate on projects, proposals, and other shared documents in a controlled and organized environment.
  • Policy and Procedure Documents: Store important policy documents, guidelines, and standard operating procedures in a document library, ensuring that employees have access to the latest versions.
  • Marketing Collateral Storage: Use a document library to store marketing materials, branding guidelines, images, and promotional content for easy access and distribution within the marketing team.
  • Legal Document Management: Manage legal documents, contracts, and agreements in a secure document library, maintaining version control and compliance with legal requirements.

Document libraries in SharePoint Online or SharePoint are essential for efficient document management, fostering collaboration, ensuring version control, and maintaining data security. They serve as a centralized hub for organizing and sharing files across teams and departments within an organization.

What are the various types of lists available in SharePoint Online?

SharePoint Online offers several types of lists to cater to various data management needs and scenarios. Each type of list is designed to handle specific types of data and optimize its presentation, organization, and functionality within a SharePoint site.

Here are the most common types of lists available in SharePoint Online:

  • Custom List: A Custom List is a versatile and widely used type of list in SharePoint. It allows you to define and customize the columns to suit your specific data requirements. It’s highly flexible and can be tailored to manage a wide range of information, making it one of the foundational list types in SharePoint.
  • Announcement List: An Announcement List is designed for sharing news, updates, or announcements within a team or organization. It typically includes fields for title, body, and expiration date to display time-sensitive information prominently.
  • Calendar: A Calendar list allows you to create and manage events, meetings, and schedules. It provides a user-friendly interface for viewing and managing events in a calendar format, making it ideal for organizing team events or project deadlines.
  • Task List: A Task List is specifically designed for tracking tasks and assignments. It includes columns for task name, description, due date, priority, and other relevant details. Task Lists are commonly used for project management and workflow tracking.
  • Contacts List: The Contacts List is used for storing and managing contact information. It typically includes fields for name, email address, phone number, job title, and other related contact details. This list type is useful for maintaining an organized directory of team members or external contacts.
  • Survey: The Survey list type allows you to create and conduct surveys to gather feedback or information from users. It includes predefined question types and provides an interface for respondents to submit their responses.
  • Links: A Links list allows you to store and manage hyperlinks. It’s commonly used to curate a collection of important links or resources related to a specific topic, project, or team.
  • Discussion Board: A Discussion Board is designed to facilitate discussions and conversations within a team or community. Users can post topics, comment on discussions, and engage in conversations on various subjects.
  • Issue Tracking: The Issue Tracking list type is used for managing and tracking issues or problems within a project or process. It includes fields to record issue details, status, priority, and other relevant information.
  • Document Library (technically a list type): While not a standard list, Document Library is a primary content storage and management mechanism in SharePoint. It’s widely used to store various types of documents and files, providing features like versioning, metadata, workflows, and access control.

These list types can be customized and tailored to meet specific organizational needs, making SharePoint Online a highly adaptable platform for organizing and managing different types of information and processes.


Factors Influencing the Choice: When should choose List or Document Library?

Choosing whether we should create a list or document library depends on many factors. The following are a few:

  • Type of Information: The nature of the information you need to manage is a key factor. Lists are suitable for structured, tabular data, while document libraries are designed for storing and organizing files and documents.
  • Collaboration Requirements: If your team needs to collaborate extensively on documents, a document library’s version control and co-authoring features are essential. If the focus is more on structured data and less on file collaboration, a list might be preferred.
  • Metadata and Searchability: If you need to categorize and tag content for easy search and retrieval, a document library with metadata columns is crucial. Lists can also have metadata, but it’s typically more file-focused in document libraries.
  • Workflow and Automation: If your process involves complex workflows and automation, lists offer more flexibility in creating custom workflows. However, if the workflow involves file-related actions, a document library is more fitting.

How to Create a List in SharePoint Online?

To create a List in SharePoint Online, follow the below steps:

From the site content page, click on the “List” menu, which is displayed under the “+New” dropdown selection.

Create List in SharePoint Online site
Create List in SharePoint Online site

Next, click on the “+ Blank list” link.

Create list in SharePoint Online with blank template
Create list in SharePoint Online with blank template


  • You can create a list with many options, like a blank list template, from an existing list, from Excel, from Microsoft Templates, etc.

Pass the list name and its description, then click on the “Create” button.

Create list in SharePoint Online with blank template demo
Create list in SharePoint Online with blank template demo


  • When you are naming the list or document library, it is recommended to create it without any spaces; that becomes the permanent name or internal name of the list, so that you will not get junk values in the list URL. Once you save it without any spaces, then provide spaces as per your needs; that becomes the display name or title of the list. For example, if we have given the name “EmployeeList,” we will rename it “Employee List”.

We can see that a new list has been created.

Create list in SharePoint Online with blank template demo - a List is created
Create list in SharePoint Online with blank template demo – a List is created

How to Create a Document Library in SharePoint Online?

To create a Document Library in SharePoint Online, follow the below steps:

From the site content page, click on the “Document Library” menu, which is displayed under the “+New” dropdown selection.

Create Document Library in SharePoint Online site
Create Document Library in SharePoint Online site

Pass the document library name and its description, then click on the “Create” button.

Create Document Library in SharePoint Online site demo
Create Document Library in SharePoint Online site demo

We can see that a new document library has been created.

Create Document Library in SharePoint Online site demo - Document Library Created
Create Document Library in SharePoint Online site demo – Document Library Created

How to create list in SharePoint Online automatically?

In the above example, we have learned about how to create a list or document library manually through the site navigation menu; however, we can create a list or document library using some automation or coding languages like PowerShell, PnP PowerShell, the SPFx framework, Power Automate, etc. Refer to the following articles for each example:


Summary: List vs Document Library SharePoint

Thus, in this article, we have learned about what a list and document library are in SharePoint Online and in which scenarios of business we should use them.

Selecting the appropriate tool, whether a list or a document library, is fundamental to effective data management and collaboration in SharePoint. Lists are well-suited for structured data management and tracking, while document libraries shine in file storage, collaboration, and version control.

Assessing your specific requirements and use cases will guide you in making the right choice, or a combination of both, for comprehensive information management within SharePoint. This decision will enhance productivity, collaboration, and efficiency within your SharePoint environment, contributing to the overall success of your projects and initiatives.

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