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Empowering Users Through SharePoint 2010 Lists (part 1) - Differentiating Lists from Libraries & Examining the Tools in an Announcements List

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There are many very powerful features and tools provided by SharePoint libraries, and SharePoint lists provide a similar set of tools and features. Because a number of these tools and features overlap with libraries, this section concentrates on the differences between lists and libraries and gives examples that will help users and administrators grasp the differences and how to best utilize lists. Examples will also be given of how list administrators and site administrators can customize lists to make them better suited to the needs of the users.

Differentiating Lists from Libraries

Although libraries are one of the most frequently used building blocks for SharePoint-based collaboration and information management systems, lists are the other. Libraries store files, while lists are designed to store rows of information, in much the same way as a spreadsheet stores rows of data defined by columns that are configured to support certain types of data, such as text, numbers, date and times, choices, and others.

When a user clicks the New Item link in a list, she is prompted to enter different types of information, such as text, currency value, time and date, selecting an item from a list of items, or perhaps entering in a user’s name. This information then gets saved as a row in the list and is given a unique ID number. No document needs to be uploaded at this point, which is a fundamental difference from a library, which can’t store data without a document to attach it to.

Another revealing exercise for an administrator is to anticipate ways in which end users, especially power users, might get themselves into trouble. There is no specific site name needed because the document library exists as part of the root site and the user could see the contents of the document library clearly shown as documents and even a folder. Navigating to a list in a similar fashion isn’t quite as friendly a process, as shown in Figure 1, where there is a folder titled Announcement, one titled Attachments, and then several documents that can be seen to be ASP.NET Server Pages are also apparent. Double-clicking the Announcement folder does not actually show the data that was entered into the list because the data is written to SQL databases and stored in tables. And data cannot be added from the Explorer interface, so there is arguably no benefit to end users of accessing a list in this fashion.

Figure 1. Explorer view of an announcement list in SharePoint 2010.


The organization should decide whether to allow Explorer view (WebDAV) access to SharePoint 2010 content, because the results end users see when visiting lists, in terms of the folders and ASP.Net pages end users find, may confuse them. Furthermore, an overzealous power user who deletes the folders or forms can impact the functionality of the list.

A fact that can be confusing to new users and administrators is that a SharePoint list can also store attachments to a list item, so be prepared for discussions along the lines of pros and cons of using lists and libraries to store items. These attachments are stored in the Attachments folder seen via the Explorer view in Figure 19.26. Another difference between list and library functionality pertains to versioning. Even if versioning is turned on for a list, one or more attachments will not have their versions tracked if they are changed. This can lead to potential confusion or even lost productivity if users are expecting attachments in a list to be versioned. Along these lines, a user could delete an attachment to a list item, and it will not be recoverable by just recovering an older version of the item because the attachments aren’t tracked with the versioning tool. Note that attachments that are deleted will end up in the Recycle Bin for recovery if needed. An additional point on versioning is that lists offer only major versions and do not allow the saving of minor versions, making them less well suited for more intricate document review and approval processes. Possibly for these reasons, lists can be configured so that attachments to list items are disabled.

Reviewing Several Common Lists Found in a Team Site Template

By reviewing several of the basic lists that are provided with a SharePoint Team Site, the flexibility of lists can easily be seen. A Team Site template includes an Announcements list, Calendar list, Links list, and Tasks list. Each of these is comprised of several columns, different views, and in some cases some special functionality that has been added by Microsoft. An overview of the columns included in each list and a brief description of enhancements are as follows:

  • The Announcements list stores announcements that consist of a Title, a Body section, and an Expiration Date. This makes it well suited as a starting point to input data that will make up an announcement on the site, which will “expire” and no longer display after a certain date.

  • The Calendar list stores rows of data that include a number of columns of data, including: Title, Location, Start Time (and date), End Time (and date), Description, Category, whether it’s an All Day Event, whether there is Recurrence, and whether a Workspace is needed. Collected together, each row of data serves to represent an event taking place and can be displayed on a special calendar-like view, and provides different display options and navigation tools.

  • The Links list is quite simple, and just provides a URL field, with description field, and a Notes field. This list is designed to track URL information while displaying a friendly description instead of the whole URL.

  • The Tasks list is also quite complex, and stores data including Title, Predecessors, Priority, Status, % Complete, Assigned To, Description, Start Date, and Due Date. This list has specially configured views to display only items that meet certain filters, such as My Tasks, Due Today, Active Tasks, By Assigned To, and By My Groups.

Examining the Tools in an Announcements List

Figure 2 shows an Announcements list in SharePoint Foundation 2010 with an item selected in it, and the Items tab on the List Tools Ribbon visible. These tools should all look familiar, and were covered in the earlier walk through for a library. Because this is housed in a SharePoint Foundation 2010 site collection, the I Like It and Tags & Notes tools are not included, but would be if the list were housed in SharePoint Server 2010 Standard or Enterprise.

Figure 2. Items tab for an Announcements list.

One new tool offered in the list is the Attach File tool, which allows the user to browse for a single file and then save it as an attachment. Attachments are saved in the Attachments folder within the list, and although there is no published limit to the number of attachments that can be added to a list item, there are few benefits to storing documents in this manner, as discussed earlier in this section.

The process of creating a new item in the list is simpler than in a library, and the user just needs to click the New Item icon, and then add content to the fields, as shown in Figure 3. For this example, an image was also included, which was uploaded from the user’s Pictures folder, and SharePoint allows the user to simultaneously choose the picture to use and also to upload it to a desired library on the site. Although this might not sound groundbreaking, in SharePoint 2007, the process for including images in rich text required that the image first be uploaded, the URL for the image copied, and then the picture placeholder used in the content (a much more laborious process). The text formatting tools can be seen, which have also improved since SharePoint 2007, and the graphic image can be resized from within the AJAX editing window. These tools make it very simple and quick for users to create quite intricate postings. After the Save button is clicked, the content is saved to the list.

Figure 3. Creating a new announcement in a list.

As with a library, an item in a list can be checked as active, and then the relevant tools become active. Figure 4 shows the List tab of the List Tools Ribbon, as a list administrator will need to become familiar with these tools to fully realize the potential of lists. A valuable set of tools is revealed in the next section, which covers the Datasheet view from a high level, and to round out this article, the Create View and Add a Column tools are demonstrated and discussed.

Figure 4. The List tab for an Announcements list.
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