How Do I Start a Property Records System? 

by Wynne Whyman, M.A., M.S.S.

Your site manager is away on a much-needed vacation. Can the substitute ranger find the warranty for the hot water heater that quit working? Or the shut-off valve for the supply line that feeds the building? Maybe it is time to enhance your record keeping.

A Property Records System is more than a filing system. It is organizing data to be utilized by the site/facilities department and integrated into other camp areas. By developing processes for your blueprints, receipts, contracts, newspaper clippings, pictures, etc., you can save time, money, and manage risks. But it can be overwhelming. Below are steps to help you organize your site/facility records today so you can be more viable in the future.

Decide What Records to Keep

You cannot possibly keep or manage all the site/facility data. But what is important? A good place to start is to assess the needs for regulatory, health/safety, stewardship, and managing the more valuable assets. Below are some questions to assist you:

  • What are the depreciable assets in the accounting records?
  • Which health/safety/program areas do you need risk management documentation (ACA standard OM-4)?
  • Where are the problem areas that data is needed for trend analysis?
  • What areas of the camp or surrounding property do you need to externally monitor (encroachment, water rights, easements, mineral rights, etc.)?
  • What does the fire department need if the property is evacuated?
  • Where are the utilities buried and the location of their shutoffs (ACA Standard SF-6)?
  • What does the insurance company recommend for a property portfolio for documentation in making claims?

When you and your team have decided what is important to keep, write it down. Then prioritize the list so you know where to begin. Articulating the list on paper helps to ensure thoroughness and bring clarity, since several people will utilize the information.

Find the Time

Missing Data?
Your Camp Is Not Alone.

There are many resources that can help you:

Finance department for a listof depreciated assets
Alumni: former campers, directors, and site staff
Adjoining property owners
Local organizations. County Seat, utility companies, soil conservation districts, Forest Service, flood plain, watersheds, historical society, library, etc.
Previous contractors, architects,and master planners for blueprints and sometimes CAD files
The camp’s safe deposit boxat a bank
USGS Aerial photographs

Unfortunately, many camps want to keep good records, but keep putting it off for when “I have some spare time.” Property records are critical and thus require special emphasis. One solution is to schedule a “meeting with the files” — such as two hours every Monday. Another solution is integrating the record keeping with existing projects, e.g., “at the end of every project that is identified in step #1, ten minutes will be spent recording the information.” A third method is to find additional help, such as an intern, volunteer, or alumni.

Develop Consistent Procedures

Developing consistent procedures gives a common groundwork for the many people who access the data, aids with staff transitions, and helps to ensure the work will continue over time.

Organize Data
Richard Wurman (1989) describes five ways to organize “like” information together — and one method is not preferred over another:

  • category — building, or waterline;
  • time — date built or serviced;
  • location — area or unit;
  • alphabet — name of the equipment; and
  • continuum — appraiser value.

Once you have a place to plug in the information, it becomes more useful. Problems only arise if you switch systems midstream, such as keeping receipts chronologically, and later filing the receipts by type of project.

Create a Catalog
When you go to the library, the first place you visit is the catalog to tell you the location of different items. Similarly for sites/facilities, it is helpful to create a “catalog,” since the data will probably be stored in different areas (see chart 1 - pdf). In a three-ring notebook record by hand or print out a computerized listing of a brief synopsis of the data and the location of the actual data/document. By storing the notebook in a prominent location and using a bright color, everyone can find the data quickly. It becomes the “main brain,” rather than having it only in one person’s memory.

See chart 2 (pdf) for a useful start-up tool. The confidence rating describes the confidence you have in the accuracy of the data — a 1973 map by a long-time volunteer may be more accurate than a 1998 map drawn by a new staff person. A more recent map does not mean that the map is more accurate.

Back-up Copies
Since both the data and the three-ring, catalog notebook are very important, remember to keep a regularly updated, backup copy off-site. A duplicate notebook helps if recovering lost items is necessary, as well as providing access to the information, if your site is evacuated.

Develop Integrated Procedures

Web Resources

Mitsui Archival CD-R. Most reliable CD on the market
Listing of over twenty CAD software packages available
National Aerial Photography Program (USGS)
Property Records Search
Soil Survey

A property records system needs to be integrated between the facilities department and other camp operations.

  • How will both the accounting department and the site/facility area get copies of the receipts?
  • If the summer staff is regularly checking the safety of the ropes course, how can the facilities staff be a check and balance system to them?
  • When the staff is completing a year-end inventory, are you also asking them to record recommendations of repairs and purchases for the next year?
  • For the fund development and gift-in-kind projects, staff usually needs two or three years’ lead-time. How will the facilities staff continually update and share the identified projects in a preventative maintenance plan?

Use Software Tools

There are different software tools to record and store site/facility information. Usually you will have a combination of different types of electronic files, which can be organized by using one of Wurman’s five methods as well. The best system is one in which useful data is recorded and can be retrieved easily, not necessarily the most expensive.

  • Microsoft® Word is good for transcribing handwritten notes that can later be inserted into different documents. Also, you can insert a picture into the document, which gives you the capability to associate an image with text.
  • Microsoft® Excel is good for number calculations, sorting, formatting, and setting-up a basic maintenance record. One file could be for buildings, another file for waterlines, and another for equipment. Then inside each file, make a separate worksheet for each building, utility line, etc. The top of the worksheet can be the description; the bottom is the maintenance record.
  • Databases are like using a deck of cards — you can pull out different hands, such as “all the diamonds.” Similarly, with a relational database, you can easily pull (query) different pieces of data together, after only entering in the information once. “Show me a list of buildings that were built by the Rotary Club” or “show me the roofs replaced between 1963 and 1971.” Some staff and volunteers may have the skills to build a basic database. However, it is essential that you have a person who is professionally skilled in database design to make the most of your system and to allow for growth and change.
  • Digital images and video are excellent for visually documenting what you have and how it has changed over time. Whenever you have the ground dug-up, it also an excellent way to record locations of septic tanks and buried utilities, especially if you include a reference such as a tape measure from a stable landmark in the picture.
  • Computer Aided Drafting (CAD). Using CAD software, buildings and utilities can be drawn for locations that do not have any maps or blueprints. There is a range of software packages available.
  • Geographic Information System (GIS). Combines all your maps electronically into one location and goes beyond CAD to give you information behind your maps. Hire a consultant or partner with a college/university.

A Proactive System

By developing or enhancing a Property Records System, you can move from being in a crisis mode into a proactive, well-managed site/facility. Not only can you save time by quickly finding the information you need for today’s project, you can use your records to create a maintenance plan to forecast expenses five to ten years out. As a result, you can include alumni in the plans, adjust your fees, and secure fund development—all of which aids in the future viability of your camp.

Whyman, Mael, and Kunkel. Building Assets with Community Effort: Computerized Mapping Aids Long-term Planning, ACA Camping Magazine, Sept./Oct.1999.
Wurman, Richard. Information Anxiety, 1989. New York: Doubleday, pp. 58-63.

Wynne Whyman, MA., M.S.S., is president of Callippe Solutions, LLC. She has twenty years in the camp industry with a variety of positions including staff, board member, and ACA visitor. She has extensive software work experiences in databases, Web pages, and teaching. She can be reached at You can request an Excel file of the start-up tool via e-mail.


Originally published in the 2003 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.