SharePoint Terminology: Column vs. Field vs. Property
Today I want to address a piece of SharePoint terminology that confused me no end when I first started working on the products. So, as a service to beginning SharePoint programmers the world over, here’s a quick (and hopefully precise, if not definitive) overview of three terms that tend to be used to mean the same thing: column, field, and document property.
Columns on Sites and Lists
Basically, what all three terms refer to a specific piece of metadata on a SharePoint item.
In other words, this:
In the UI, these are called ‘columns’ because, well, that’s what they are displayed as: columns. Each piece of metadata you’re collecting for a list is represented as a column on that list (Whether the column is actually displayed on the list or not. Columns can be hidden.)
However, if you take a look under the hood, either in the SharePoint schemas or object model, you’ll find they’re called Fields. This is what they were called in V2, and for compatibility sake, that’s what they remain in V3. (Database columns tend to be called ‘fields’, so that might be where the term originally crept in.)
So far, that’s all pretty straightforward. But V3 adds some complexity (and correspondingly, much flexibility and power) with the addition of content types, and site columns. I’ve talked some about content types here. Site columns can be thought of as templates; you create the site column at the site level, then you can apply it to the various lists and sub-sites as you wish. Site columns are represented as <Field> elements in the site schema, and Field objects in the object model.
When you add a site column to a list, the column definition is copied locally to the list, as a list column. So, in the list schema, the list column is represented by a <Field> element in the list schema now. In the object model, it’s represented by a Field object.
Another important point to mention: when you add a site column to a list, the resulting list column has the same field ID as the site column. SharePoint uses this to track which list columns are “children” of a given site column. This enables you to make changes to a site column and propagate those changes out to all the list columns that are children of the site column.
You can also create columns at the list level. These columns only apply to the list on which they are created. You can think of them as one-offs. You can add list columns to content types on that list, but that's it. List columns are also represented as <Field> elements in the list schema, and SPField objects in the object model. Because they were created from scratch, though, they do not have a parent/child relationship with any other column.
Columns in Content Types
Here’s where it gets interesting:
If there’s certain item metadata you want to track in a content type, you include a column that represents that metadata. However, you cannot create a column in a content type; rather, you have to create the column, and then reference that column in the content type definition. Because of this, when you add a column to a content type, the content type schema doesn’t contain a <Field> element, it contains a <FieldRef> element. This is true of both site and list columns you add to content types.
The <FieldRef> element is a reference to a column defined elsewhere, either at the site or list level. In the field reference, you can override a subset of the column properties, such as:
· Display name
· XML promotion and demotion attributes
· Whether the field is read-only, required, or hidden
Changing these properties in the field reference only changes them as they apply to the specific content type that contains the field reference, of course.
Field references retain the same field ID as the column they reference.
If you create a content type based on a parent content type, be default all the columns in the parent are included in the child content type, as <FieldRef> elements.
Now, when you add a content type to a list, the columns referenced in that content type get copied locally onto the list as list columns. In other words, the columns referenced by the various <FieldRef> elements in the content type schema are copied onto the list schema as <Field> elements—again, with the child/parent relationship to the site column.
As mentioned earlier, when you add a list column to a list content type, it's added as a <FeildRef> in the list content type schema.
Therefore, columns are always represented by <Field> elements in site and list schemas, but always represented by <FieldRef> elements in content type schemas.
Field references in content types are represented by the SPFieldLink object in the SharePoint object model.
The term 'document property' is most often used in the context of talking about a particular piece of metadata you're interested in tracking for a document. That is, the particular column value for that document. The last modified date, for example. When you upload a bunch of documents and display the last modified date for each, you get a column of last modified date values, as in the screen shot above.
The document property might be something you're tracking solely at the document library level, or it might also be included in the document itself.
(In which case, WSS V3 includes functionality that enables you to promote and demote the document property, so the value in the document is always in synch with the value in the column.
Property promotion refers to extracting document properties from a document, and writing those property values to the appropriate columns on the document library where the document is stored. Property demotion refers to taking column values from the document library where a document is stored, and writing those column values into the document itself.
WSS includes several built-in document parsers that automatically promote and demote document properties for well-known file types. In addition, you can use the built-in XML parser to promote and demote properties from your custom XML files. Finally, WSS also includes a document parser interface, which enables you to build custom parsers that can promote and demote document properties from your custom file types.)
Hopefully, the figure below illustrates this relationship. You add the site column Author to a content type; in the content type schema, the column is represented by a <FieldRef> element. When you add the content type to a list, WSS adds the Author column as a <Field> element. Both elements have the same field ID as the Author site column. When you add the list column ItemNo to the list content type, WSS adds it as a <FieldRef> element, with the same field ID. For Document C, the actual values for those two columns are stored in the document itself, and also displayed in the columns on the list.
The Bottom Line
So, to review:
What are called columns in the user interface are referred to as fields in the schema and object model.
You can create columns at two levels: the site, and list levels. These columns are represented as <Field> elements in the site and list schema, and Field objects in the object model. List columns created when you add a site column to a list retain a child/parent relationship with the site column, and retain the same field ID as the site column.
You cannot create a column in a content type. When you add a column to a content type, it's added as a <FieldRef> in the content type schema. When you add a content type to a list, the columns referenced by the <FieldRef> elements in that content type schema are added to the list as <Field> elements.
Therefore, columns are always represented by <Field> elements in site and list schemas, and always represented by <FieldRef> elements in content type schemas.
Document properties usually just refer to a field as it applies to a specific document. The document property might be something you're tracking solely at the document library level, or it might also be included in the document itself.
Postscript: A Short Digression Concerning the SPContentType Object
In the SharePoint object model, the SPContentType object contains both a SPFieldLinkCollection and an SPFieldCollection object. But if columns in content types are represented by field references, how can you have a collection of fields in the content type? Because it's one of the ways we're making your life easier, that's why.
The SPFieldCollection in the SPContentType object enables developers an easy way to get a 'merged view' of a column's attributes, as they are in that content type. By merged view, I mean all the attributes of a field, merged with those attributes that have been overridden in the field reference. When you access a field through SPContentType.SPFieldCollection["myField"] , WSS merges the field definition with the field reference and returns the resulting SPField object to you. That way, you don't have to look up a field definition, then look up all the attributes in the field definition overridden by the field reference for that content type. We do it for you.
Because of this, there's a 1-to-1 correlation between the items in the SPFieldLinkCollection and SPFieldCollection objects. For each SPFieldLink you add to a content type, we add an SPField object that represents the merged view of that column as it's defined in the content type. You cannot directly add or delete items from an SPFieldCollection object in an SPContentType object; trying to do so throws an error.