The Case for Librarians to Incorporate Records Management Practices

With a little metadata, file management can become a lot easier.

The libraries I have worked at store files in too many locations, have individuals with too much control over files and knowledge that affects many areas of an organization, and either keep useless files for too long or lose files that are still needed. With a generation of librarians retiring, it is ever more important to ensure that tacit knowledge, held by an individual person doing their job, is developed into documented, communicable, corporate knowledge that can be shared and carried forward with colleagues and new employees. 

Many of the tools needed to accomplish these goals are available in Microsoft SharePoint and Teams. SharePoint is a platform that has undergone revisions and development over 23 years, and Teams extends and incorporates SharePoint’s functionality. Most librarians and library staff will not have much experience with it, but SharePoint is ubiquitous in corporate environments. While many records and information management (RIM) professionals have a library background and the profession drew from librarianship to develop its principles and core competencies, libraries would benefit from incorporating more RIM and User Experience practices, especially for project and file management. 

For anyone who worked in a corporate environment from the start of the millennium to roughly 2016, when cloud-based Office 365 and Google Workspace apps came around, the experience of records management was painful. Many corporations implemented this software to meet legal obligations or fulfill the recommendations of consulting companies, but did not have their employees in mind. (I had contracts where I was equally responsible for fixing broken document libraries as I was to try and stop local governments from being sued or scandalized.) The older versions of SharePoint were a bit clunky and obtuse, and records management initiatives forced users to create the equivalent of a “full level,” detailed catalog record for every document they wanted to save. In this context, the sorry state of records management in libraries could be excused. SharePoint is now much easier to use and gives more options to make user-friendly document libraries. 

Using columns for metadata in Teams and SharePoint 

To make records management more efficient, we can add metadata to files and folders instead of using a hierarchical nested folder structure. This will make your sites more efficient, reduce the number of duplicate files, allow for easier project management, and let you make use of built in records-scheduling features (i.e., prompting you if you still need a file after a set time frame). 

We are used to using metadata for subjects, authorities, etc., on bibliographic records.  Some public libraries have experimented with “folksonomies” and keywords in place of controlled vocabularies, but most libraries insist on using formal, controlled subjects from sources like Library of Congress, Medical Subject Heads, and Canadian Subject Headings.  

In SharePoint and Teams, informal tags are generally more useful than rigorously planned out vocabularies. You can easily add metadata to your document libraries (aka “Files” tab).  

In a document library either in the Teams app or on Teams or SharePoint in the browser, click Add columns, and you will see a large selection of options: 

A screenshot of Microsoft Teams, showing the option menu for new oclumns
Options for new columns

Each of these options gives you different configuration choices. You can name the column in the next screen, choose to color code the choices, and choose a data type, like date and time, a drop-down list, yes/no, and others.

You can use these columns to let yourself and others know if you’ve completed work on a file, what step you are on, and any number of other uses. This can save you from having cumbersome titles and messy folders and improve coworking.

To add values to a file for a metadata column, you can right-click on the file, click details, and add a value to the column:

A screenshot of Microsoft Teams, showing where the Details command is
Where to find the Details command

To edit the metadata value for multiple files at a time, you need to be in SharePoint on a web browser (in case you hadn’t realized, your Teams libraries are also SharePoint sites). From a Teams channel, you can get to SharePoint by clicking on the “Open in SharePoint” button:

A screenshot of Microsoft Teams, showing where to open a file in SharePoint
How to move from Teams to SharePoint

From the browser, you just need to click “Edit in grid view” which will let you edit the metadata in all columns like an Excel spreadsheet (aside from ones auto-generated ones, like Modified and Created By):

A screenshot of a number of files sorted by metadata in Microsoft SharePoint
An example of files sorted with metadata in SharePoint

These features will help you have more functionality with your data by making them more discoverable in search. They also enable you to organize files in multiple ways (you can sort the columns like in Excel) and track progress. Though files are stagnant, using metadata to organize files allows for dynamic and multifaceted processes.

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