Metadata that checks in but won’t check out

9 site columns that you should not add to your SharePoint document libraries – unless you want to keep them forever

The ability to create metadata in one place in a site collection and use it where you need it was an especially welcome feature in SharePoint 2007. In SharePoint 2010, the managed metadata service extends this capability to share metadata (and content types) across site collections - which is even better. This week, we painfully discovered that there are several out of the box SharePoint site columns that end users should NEVER re-use in a document library - unless there is a developer armed with PowerShell to help them get rid of them if they decide they don't want them after all.

Here's the problem we were trying to solve. I was working with a client on an enterprise metadata strategy for a new SharePoint 2010 intranet that includes a publishing environment (corporate portal) and a collaboration environment (team sites). One of the biggest problems with their current team environment is a lack of governance and the inability to find content once it is posted. Along with the new platform, they are wisely implementing and evangelizing new governance policies and more specific guidance about metadata to improve "findability." They are particularly concerned about having an appropriate content owner/contact for intranet pages and documents. The objectives are pretty simple: make it easier to manage and maintain content by having a clear owner who is responsible for each content element and make it easier to associate document content with a person (who may not be the person who uploaded or last modified the document). The corporate portal was built in SharePoint 2007 and the portal pages were all based on the System Page content type. This base content type has a column (Type=Person) called Contact that automatically populates with the Created By user but can be changed to someone else. We thought it would be helpful to re-use that column in documents so that all content would use the same attribute to indicate ownership. We wondered whether or not it would auto-populate like it does on publishing pages so we added it to a document library to test if there was something special about that column. Well, there is something special about that column - unfortunately, it's not the good kind of special. First, as we expected, it doesn't auto-populate in document libraries - just in content based on the System Page. Second, once you add Contact to a list (or to a content type), you are stuck with it - you can't delete the column from the list (no Delete button) and you can't remove it from your content type (no Remove button). In other words, the field is like the roach motel - it checks in but it never checks out!  Not even in SharePoint Designer! This is especially disturbing because the end user gets no warning - SharePoint is happy to let you add this "special" column but doesn't tell you to "be afraid, be very afraid." If this does happen to you, I found a reference to a PowerShell script that can help remove it after the fact, but from an end user perspective, this is really not good.

I tried to ask a few of my technical gurus if there was a definitive list of the "do not use these site columns unless you want to keep them forever" columns and no one had one so I did a little testing to come up with a list of my own. This list of nine is not comprehensive, but these are the columns that end users might try to use in a document library, list or content type. It's not that they can't be used; it's just that if you add them to a list or library, there is no way to get rid of them in the user interface. As a general rule, it's probably safest not to re-use these columns for content that isn't a "page" (i.e. lists and document libraries):

  • Byline
  • Contact
  • Contact E-Mail Address
  • Contact Name
  • Contact Picture
  • Article Date
  • Scheduling End Date
  • Scheduling Start Date
  • Target Audiences

Today is April Fool's Day and for the record, these "special" site columns are no joke!

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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