Getting Around SharePoint’s Threshold Limits for Large Reference Lists

In SharePoint 2007, we could build lists that contained as many items as we wanted and access them in any way we wanted. We may have done stupid things that were bad for server performance, but if we knew what we were doing there were few limits. We had the mythical “2000 item” rule of thumb (which had little basis in reality in many, many cases) but otherwise it was up to us. (See: Plan for software boundaries (Office SharePoint Server))

In SharePoint 2010, Microsoft introduced threshold limits to protect us from ourselves. This seemed counter intuitive to me, since with the upgrade to SharePoint 2010, one also had to go to 64 bit architecture and put a heck of a lot more iron behind the SharePoint farm. While we could potentially store 30,000,000 items in a list (30 million!), we had a list view threshold of 5000 items. (See: SharePoint Server 2010 capacity management: Software boundaries and limits)

SharePoint 2013 maintains similar limits to 2010, with 5000 items the limit for a list view. (See: Software boundaries and limits for SharePoint 2013)

List View ThrottlingSomehow, as technology has moved forward – significantly – we’ve got more limits.

5000 items is way too many to ever show in a list view, but it may not be if you want to do some client side processing. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to build a truly bloated, Bad Idea list view or request data using REST, you’re stuck with that 5000 item limit.

But what if you know what you are doing and the 5000 item limit doesn’t work for you? I’ve written in the past about why we shouldn’t change some of the threshold limits (e.g.,  The SharePoint 2010 “List View Lookup Threshold” and Why We Don’t Change It).

If we’re working on Office365, we simply can’t change the limits – Microsoft gets to decide what they are. Sometimes those limits change without notice, too, so it’s truly out of our hands.

Well, what does all this add up to? Let’s take a specific example.

I needed to provide auto complete functionality in an InfoPath form. It was the classic scenario: we had a list of [in this case] 19,000+ cities and towns and we needed a good UX for entering selections into the form. We run into this sort of thing with data like cities and towns all the time. There are too many choices for a dropdown to make any sense, and SharePoint doesn’t offer up any better alternatives. jQueryUI’s autocomplete function is a perfect solution for this sort of thing.

The data was in a spreadsheet, and it’s easy to upload data from a spreadsheet to a SharePoint list. Bingo, bango, done, right? Well, no. It’s impossible to upload data from a spreadsheet *and* index the column. We need to index the column so that we can make type of requests requests that we need for autocomplete – basically, give me all of the items that begin with or contain this string – or else we run into the 5000 item threshold error on our requests.

No problem! We’ll just upload the data and *then* index the column. Not so fast, mister. When you try to index the column you run into – you guessed it – the 5000 item limit. No indexee, no laundry.

So seemingly we’re stuck. But wait – we can just create the list in the UI, add the index, and paste all 19,000 items into the Brave New World of SharePoint 2013’s “data sheet view” aka “Quick Edit”. Sadly, when I tried to paste in more than a few hundred items, the browser hung on me. This was on Office365, and I tried several different browsers. SharePoint Online seems to prefer nibbles to big bites of data. Unless I spent days just doing the pasting, this was never going to happen.

In this case, I decided to simply store the data in a text file containing JSON rather than trying to force it into a list. Thanks to @bpmccullough for the suggestion on Twitter.

The data I originally had received for the sities and towns was in a CSV file. I found a nice little site that would convert the CSV format to JSON (bookmark this one; you’ll need it in this JSON-oriented world).

Once I had the JSON file uploaded to a Document Library, the code below is what I used to set up the autocomplete. We wanted the autocomplete to allow multiple choices, so there’s a little monkeying around to enable that. It wasn’t tremendously peppy (19,000 cities, after all), but it worked. Remember, kids: this is an example. Don’t expect to drop it into your page and have it work.

var citiesAndStates = [];

// Get the City and State data from the file with JSON data
$.getJSON("/Shared%20Documents/CityState.txt", function(data) {
  var results = $(data);
  // Push the data into an array which is appropriate for jQueryUI autocomplete
  citiesAndStates = ($.map(results, function(item) {
    return {
      label: item.State + " - " + item.City, // Show "State - City" [e.g., MA - Boston] for selection
      value: item.City + ", " + item.State // Show "City, State" [e.g., Boston, MA] upon selection

// When the field is available and gets focus, set up the autocomplete behavior
$(document).on("focus", "input[id$='FormControl0_V1_I1_S15_I4_T5']", function() {
  if ($(this).data("autocompleteSet") === undefined) {
    $(this).data("autocompleteSet", true);

    // Don't navigate away from the field on tab when selecting an item
    .bind("keydown", function(event) {
      if (event.keyCode === $.ui.keyCode.TAB && $(this).data("ui-autocomplete") {
      source: function(request, response) {
        // Delegate back to autocomplete, but extract the last term
        response($.ui.autocomplete.filter(citiesAndStates, extractLast(request.term)));
      minLength: 3,
      focus: function() {
        // Prevent value inserted on focus
        return false;
      select: function(event, ui) {
        var terms = split(this.value);
        // Remove the current input
        // Add the selected item
        // Add placeholder to get the semicolon-and-space at the end
        this.value = terms.join("; ");
        return false;

function split(val) {
  return val.split(/;\s*/);

function extractLast(term) {
  return split(term).pop();

One note here: This approach basically violates my “put all data into a list so that end users can maintain it” rule. However, the approach I came up with was the best one for the situation. It’s still possible for a reasonably savvy (meaning “non-developer”) user to manage the data by downloading the file and using a JSON-aware editor.

The main thing was that we were able to set up something that worked, regardless what the Office365 limits may change to.