The basics of SharePoint check in and check out
Check in/out is one of the basic features of SharePoint that you as an everyday SharePointer will likely run into. It’s not something you have to use; be strategic and use it when you feel it makes sense. Check in/out is also one of the more confusing aspects of SharePoint. I’ve even found that some users are slaves to check in/out without actually having to be so.
First, there’s no set way to refer to the feature. Some call it “check in”. Some call it “check out”. And still others say “check in-and-out”, “check-in-out”, and the satisfying staccato “check-in-check-out”. I’m going to stick with “check out” in this post for consistency. But we’re all talking about the same thing.
I’m not going to sugar-coat this: I hate check out. Yes, hate is a strong word. And I used it for a reason.
I think check out is a relic of the past and generally unnecessary in a modern workplace using SharePoint 2013, 2016, or Online. I think it’s unnecessarily confusing and had good intentions, but whose (minor) benefits were only noticed by a few, ignored by the vast majority. And rightly so.
How to use check out
The easiest way to describe check out is it’s a feature to reserve a file for yourself when you want to be the only one editing it. It’s not unlike checking a book out of a library: only you have the book, others don’t have access, you read the book in all your glory. Within SharePoint, follow one of the below methods to check the file out to you.
Once checked out, you’ll notice the icon for the file contains a little green arrow in the bottom-right corner (item 1 in the screenshot below). And, if you have the “Checked Out To” column displayed in a library, SharePoint will tell everyone the file’s checked out to you (item 2 in the screenshot below).
Once you’re done editing the file, you check it back in to release the file from your grips and share it with your colleagues. Do this by saving the file one last time and close the application. Jump back to the SharePoint library and check the file in as shown below.
Note from that screenshot that you can also discard your check out. This means any changes made since you checked the file out (even if you saved) will be lost and the file will be returned to the state it was in before you checked it out. This is a Hail Mary move if you made a bunch of changes and want to disregard them, or if the file happens to be corrupt and you don’t want a version created with the corrupt aspects.
When you check the file in, SharePoint’s going to ask you if you want to retain the check out after checking in. (I have no idea why.)
More useful, the pop-up provides you the opportunity to submit a comment; a comment can be something useful like “Finished reviewing. File is now ready to go to client.” I like the idea of comments, but nobody ever really uses them (probably because the option is generally only encountered when checking a file in).
Whenever you check a file in, a new version of the file is created, unless versioning is not enabled. (Yes, you can still use check out even if versioning is disabled.) This can be useful if you want to force-create a version of a file, especially a non-Office file.
Required check out
By default, document libraries do not require files to be checked out to be edited. (It would be a nightmare if you had to.)
That said, Site Owners can require check out in a library by going to Library settings > Versioning Settings > Yes under “Require documents to be checked out before they can be edited?” Disable check out by toggling that selection to No.
Check out is generally tied to version history, and you can garner that’s the way it’s intended based on where you toggle it on and off. Note that check out can only be toggled on and off by a Site Owner and it can only be done at the library level. There is no way to mass-enable required check out in an entire site.
When to use check out
Check out can be useful when you use very strict review processes where you have determined it necessary to ensure only the reviewer has access to edit the file during the process of passing through reviews. That said, each reviewer needs to be well versed in how check out works, because it confuses people easily. Uneducated users can cause more problems than the process is worth.
Check out is also a quick and dirty way to “lock” a file from editing by others. This could be needed for a variety of different reasons. It’s especially useful (and tempting) to those people who don’t have Site Owner access to the library and therefore can’t change permissions. (The other way to lock a file would be to make it read-only to everyone rather than editable, which only a Site Owner can do.)
Check out and metadata
Note: this section is written for the classic version of SharePoint. Modern SharePoint (in SharePoint Online) no longer has this issue.
You’ll be required to check a file in if you’re uploading it to a library that has required metadata. I find this a major problem, but it’s how it works.
Uploading a file through the “Upload” button (either above the library content or from the ribbon) will prompt you to provide the metadata, run you through the options, and complete the operation by checking the file in.
However, if you’re used to dragging and dropping files directly into your browser (or maybe through File Explorer, even), the file(s) will upload, but won’t hit you up for metadata selections. So the file(s) end up sitting in the library checked out to you. And there’s no warning; it just happens.
When uploading files into a library with required metadata, you must either 1) use the “upload” button, or 2) drag-and-drop and be vigilant to check the file(s) in once you’ve done that.
This process is confusing to the extreme and prone to massive amounts of checked out files, which is why I tell people to always use the “upload” button in libraries with required metadata.
Check out and co-authoring
Co-authoring, which I think is one of the biggest wins in the SharePoint world in a long time, is the main reason I don’t like check out. Co-authoring and check out are mutually exclusive concepts. You can’t be editing a file concurrently with colleagues if you have the file checked out.
So, if you’re planning to take advantage of the benefits of real-time editing with other people, required check out is not an option you should enable in your library. And you and your colleagues should know not to (or at least not be tempted) to check out any files if the goal is to co-author.
Why checked out files can cause problems
Forgotten check outs: It’s really common for people to forget they’ve checked out a file. It’s simple to check out a Word document, open it in Word, make the edits, save the file, close Word, and go on with your day. Word nor SharePoint will do what it should, which is hit you with a pop-up that says, “Hey slacker! You left this checked out. Did you mean to do that?” The saved update isn’t actually available to everyone else, so if a checked out file is due for a time-sensitive presentation, for example, only the most recent version will be available. This is another reason why I will always push for co-authoring so you don’t have to worry about that!
Upgrades: You may not realize it, but checked out files generally cannot be upgraded to a new version of SharePoint. They’re essentially locked by the person who checked the file out and SharePoint can basically skip those files when doing an upgrade or migration from one version to another. There are third-party tools that are smart enough to get around this, of course, but they cost money and require training to use.
Check out is a risky endeavor. The value that it provides is minimal, except in circumstances where it’s explicitly called for. And even in those situations, I still ask the users to really convince themselves that they need check out because it’s so prone to user error, forgetfulness, and not realizing that files are checked out to them.
If you want to use check out, make sure you have fully vetted the need and have convinced yourself completely that it’s worth it.