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Buyer beware: SharePoint version history

Version history is an incredible set of functions that eliminates risk and makes your life so much easier when you find yourself in one of those “whoops” situations.

Version history in all its glory

But, like anything that comes from our friends in Redmond, it has its own limitations and drawbacks. Here are the two I see impact users most often.

Not enabled by default in SP2013

Don’t just assume version history is working when you jump into a document library in SharePoint. For some God-awful reason, Microsoft decided that version history is disabled in every new SharePoint 2013 library by default.¹ Your site owner has to turn version history on before you can benefit from its amazingness.

Except in SharePoint Online. Since late 2015, version history, thankfully, enabled by default in a new library in SharePoint Online.

A good site owner will enable version history in any library they create. But we aren’t all good site owners. And even the good ones make mistakes. So take it upon yourself to make sure version history is working in your library when you start.

It’s super easy to check if version history is enabled.

  1. SharePoint Online: From any document library, right-click on a file name and if you see Version History in the menu, it’s enabled.
  2. SharePoint 2013 (or SharePoint Online): Check the box next to the name of the file, go up to the “Files” tab in the ribbon, and if the Version History button is active (i.e., not greyed out), that means that version history is enabled.

It’s your responsibility to ensure that version history is enabled if you plan to use it. We all jump around between different libraries all day long. It’s likely that version history is turned on in some and not others, and we may not even be aware of it. Site owners are different, intentions of different sites are unique, etc.

So the key takeaway here is when you’re introduced to a new document library, your first instinct should be to check whether version history’s got your back.

Versions ≠ ∞

The number of versions that will be saved in any document library is limited. It doesn’t go on forever. By default, when version history is turned on, SharePoint 2010 and 2013 are limited to 400,000 major versions and 511 minor versions. SharePoint Online limits itself to 500 major versions to start, though this number can be increased (presumably) to the 400,000 referenced above.

And these values probably sound like basically infinity to you.

But — and this is a really big but — your site owner can reduce that number if they so choose. There’s no easy way for a regular user to know what that version limit is, so you want to make sure you discuss this with your site owner. The reason being, if, for example, the version limit in a library is 10, once you get to version 11, version 1 is gone. Same with version 2 when you get to version 12. You don’t want to run into that problem, trust me.

So, if you think the version limit in your favorite doc library is too low, talk to your site owner and find out why they set the number where they did. Most likely it has to do with space limitations in their site. But, it could just be because they didn’t know what they were doing when they set that number.

If you think more versions will help you do your job better without taking up ungodly amounts of space, ask for a separate library where the number of versions is higher than normal. It’s likely they’ll have no problem doing that for you. Just be a courteous user.

More on version history

This is a series on version history. Check out the other posts on this topic.
Basics | Buyer Beware | Will I Run Out of Space? | Version History vs. Track Changes

¹ I’m sure it has to do with the amount of space that versions take up and not wanting to anger all the IT admins out there by causing space usage to run amok. That doesn’t mean they can’t enable version history with a small, limited number of versions to start with, just to ensure that changes are being saved.



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