Thursday, June 11, 2015

Money on Your Mind, by Dolly Moehrle

You know what we talked about in library school? Collection development; the history of libraries; marketing; web and tech-y things; and other stuff I dutifully wrote about and promptly forgot after the end of the semester. You know what we didn’t go over very much? Money. And now that I’m the director of my small library, guess what I spend most of my time dealing with and thinking about? Money. 

A lot of people tell you, if you don’t like math, go into the humanities. The liberal arts! Psych majors don’t have to do math, is the promise. Librarians don’t need to worry about accounting. “They” promise that librarianship is a soft, math free field. You get to sit in a cozy office, cat in your lap, cardigan over your shoulders, and read for a living. (And maybe those librarian jobs do exist and I just haven’t had any of them.) But as it turns out, there is PLENTY of math in libraries.

I started in circulation and we accepted money for fines, lost books, supplies, and lots of other things. None of the amounts were huge—we didn’t take in one week what the average retail store probably takes in one day—but still, we had to count the amounts in the register, and eventually I was given the task of preparing the weekly deposit.

(A note on financial management tasks, specifically deposits: every library and library system is different. Some deposit directly into a bank account. Others direct you to go through the parent organization’s treasury. Still others only have designated people handle cash at all, and some require deposits to be made under a full moon with fire. It depends.)

Reconciling register tapes and daily cash count logs wasn’t what I pictured when I thought about working in a library. At my next job, I was in an administrative position and didn’t handle cash, but I did manage something else: acquisitions! Our integrated library system had a module that allowed us to track collection spending and pay vendors electronically, so now I was monitoring and reconciling A WHOLE LOT OF MONEY. More than that, I was part of a process that was actually getting money to vendors, which came with its own set of challenges.


As a library director, I am ultimately responsible for not only making sure vendors get paid, but the entire process of budgeting. (Did I mention I am not a trained bookkeeper?) I have to draft the budget, present it to my board, and work with them to make sure it is adequate for the needs of the library. While our county is essentially our “banker,” it is my responsibility to keep a copy of the books for the library and making sure that everything is balancing out the way it should and matching with what our county is reporting. It’s never been malicious, but mistakes happen and I need to be able to catch them. A new challenge this fiscal year, for example, is that the county is preparing to switch to a new financial management system, and we have had to make changes to our books to reflect their new system. We also have to be trained in the operation of the new system.

There are jobs in librarianship where you don’t have to think about money, but even collection development librarians need to be aware of and work within their budgets. If you aspire to management, you don’t need to be a trained bookkeeper, but basic awareness of accounting procedures and governmental accounting (if relevant) is pretty darned important. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
  1. Money is a tool, and keeping track of it will serve you well. Knowing where you are in your budget cycle, and being aware of what’s being spent, is useful knowledge even if you don’t have a role that involves budgeting or even spending. [Editor’s Note: Submitting a purchase request towards the end of your fiscal year is a bad idea.]
  2. Know how to use your tools: the acquisitions system, if you have one, or even good old fashioned Excel. Knowing what you’re using is half the battle. (If you’re working in Excel, LOCK YOUR FORMULAS you won’t regret it I promise you.)
  3. Are you working with vendors? You need to know your purchasing power. Do you need a purchase order? A credit card number? How much credit will they extend? What are their payment terms?
  4. Is your funding source stable? Are you looking at a reduction in service hours or layoffs next fiscal year? Ignorance is not bliss.
Most public library systems and a lot of public higher ed institutions make their financial documents available on their websites, so you can begin to get an idea of what costs make up a library’s budget. (Hint: the majority of costs are in staffing.) has several cool looking courses on Excel and budgeting, but if you’re lazy and cheap like I am there are books and YouTube videos and tutorials galore on the internet to walk you through the basics of understanding what a budget document is. Until library schools wise up and make budgeting classes mandatory, you may have to take charge of this aspect of your education alone.


Dolly Moehrle is the director of the Ventura County Law Library in Ventura, CA. She was a 2012 Eureka! Leadership Institute Fellow and received her MLIS from SJSU in 2012. She blogs sporadically at and tweets obsessively as @loather.


  1. Adding beyond 140 char in my @lspags RT:

    This is a great post--somehow as an English major I wound up in Acquisitions as a librarian, with mostly on-the-job training for all the mathy things. In my RT I referred to the ALCTS Fundamentals of Acquisitions course (here:, but there's also the AcqNet listserv for ad hoc questions/support (here:

    Becoming familiar with how things are paid in one's respective library (from starting the process to reimburse a speaker's expenses to big vendor packages) is invaluable no matter what your position in the organization. Of course, many of us Acq folks are in the heat of fiscal year-end at the moment, but usually very helpful and supportive.

    Acquisitions Librarian, UC Davis

  2. To save money, I basically took on some of our accountants tasks. I started cutting checks and keeping track of our financial information in Quickbooks. They signed off on everything though. AND I got to sit through purchasing training through the state since I was handling public funds. So I learned how to get the best construction materials for the best price... we even talked about tanks!