PAPERBACK CATALOGUES or picture reference books are like government offices: although they are expensive and nicely decorated, they generally end up referring you elsewhere. As a result, they are rarely memorable or significant per se , except as an appealing answer to the problem of what to get Uncle Eddie for his birthday.

They are oftern more attractive than useful, and yet the average volume discussed below costs six or seven dollars - a fact you may not appreciate until you are already at the sales counter, since many uncandid publishers put the price on the back cover in a shy and retiring type-face.

What follows is a selection of recent releases - including some which are genuinely valuable and original. General Family Interest

A Sigh of Relief: The First-Aid Handbook for Childhood Emergencies, produced by Martin I. Green (Bantam. $6.95), must be the finest book of its book of its kind. Only the most medically experienced or diabolically negligent parent would not want a copy. Covering the entire grisly panorama of injuries, the publishers have rightly assumed that the reader is apt to be a little panicky when he lays hands on the book. Consequently, it is laid out with an easily visible index which allows the reader to locat his particular misfortune within seconds. Once there, the instructions are printed in very large tyoe, and accompanied by simple illustration. The book includes the latest form of artificial respiration and the most recently acknowledged method of freeing objects from a choking person, as well as the unhappily necessary color chart for identifying drugs that turn up in Junior's drawer.

Equally informative, if less essential, is The Whole Baby Catalog (Drake,$6.95). If you are the possessor of a half baby, this is not the book for you. But if, like so many young couples, you arrived in the family way without without knowing much beyond how it happened, this volume can prove that the knowledge of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. As the title indicates, it is primarity intended as a source-book for new parents. But among the lists of other books and materials, there is a fund of information on such arcane topics as folding diapers, understanding pacifiers, how to watch "Sesame Street," toilet training in less than a day, and even a rather bald summary of the "Piaget Characteristics of the First Stage of the Pre-operational Period (2 to 4 Years)." The book is not indexed - which is incomprehensible. But if yor thought that it's all over when you buy the booties, then get this catalogue.

If you were thinking of installing dead-bolt locks lest baby be stolen by elves, it might be wise to look first at The Complete Book of Locks, Keys, Burglar and Smoke Alarms and Other Security Devices, by Eugene A. Sloane (Morrow, $6.95). The author has managed to make this intimidating subject both interesting and understandable, if somewhat disappointing to the reader who has just bought an expensive cheap lock. Sloane takes the maximum security view, advocating in many cases the kind of devices which would seem more appropriate to branch banks or plutonium storage centers. But his thesis is that we live in a violent society, and that "the cash outlay for good lock, effective burglar and fire alarms is very small compared with the peace of mind this investment can bring." You might not be willing to accept that notion until you see the dozens of pictures showing mere ordinary locks being broken, cracked, sawed through and otherwise mutilated by skilled hands. But if you are alreaddy satisfied with you locks, Sloane has much to say about bike locks, protective grillwork, safecracking, portable locks for hotel rooms and - yes - the best in escape ladders for urban cliff-dwellers. Many books of this kind claim to be "commplete." This one is: so much so that it should be vert popular among homeowners and housebreakers alike.

Other notable volumes in this category include: The Magic Book, by Karl Fulves (Little, Brown, $7.95), a mixed bag of tricks for adults or children with advanced reading skills; The Complete Book of Kites, by Bill Thomas (Lippincott, $6.95), which includes such obscure lore as the importance of correct bridling and how to tie the Improved Cinch Knot for Monofilament Line; The Great Perpetual Learning Machine, by Jim Blake and Barbara Ernst (Little, Brown, $7.95), a book with the creditable purpose of helping adults help children to learn, but hindered by one of the most maddenng layouts in modern memory; and finally The Complete Martial Arts Catalogue by John Corcoran and Emil Farkas (Fireside, $4.95), a digest of question-and-answer trivia for little throat-kickers and brick-breakers.

Serious browsers among the general titles may come across two volumes published locally. The first is Wellness: The YES! Bookshop Guide, (YES!, Inc., $4.95). The YES! store in Georgetown is the kind of a place where, if you go in asking for a copy of Roots, you may walk out with The Book of Ginseng. If you accept the store's bias in favor of organic-eclectic orientalism and the notion that "Internal cleanliness, relaxed and sturdy inner organs working cooperatively together, are the best prevention against disease," then Wellness contains scores of well-written, concise reviews of books such as Glands: Our Invisible Guardians, (a Rosicrucian guide to your innards), Seeds and Sprouts for Life, and Better Sight Without Glasses. The AMA may not approve, but they probably never read Alan Watts.

The other local production is Donald Dresden's Guide to Dining Out in Washington, by Donald Dresden (Acropolis, $2.95), with the familiar smile-and-whisk semaphores intact.

The introduction is chewy and satisfying, the prose is crisp, but the reviews are definitely underdone, averaging only 60 words each. Unhappily, the 80 pages of abnormally brief comment are followed by another 80 pages of advertising. If you want the book, you should only have to pay $1.50 for the editorial half. Government Reference

Writing your congressman gets results more often than most people think, and calling can work even better. But don't touch that dial until you have looked in Braddock's Federal-State-Local Government Directory, 1977-78 (Braddock, 1028 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; $5.90 plus 40 cents postage, available only through the publisher), which has the telephone numbers and addresses not only of congressmen, but also executive departments, agencies, commissions, regulatory agencies, state and local organizations, major communications media, and the correct forms of address for such nabobs as lieutenant governors and foreigh ministers. Less comprehensive but handier is The U.S. Congress Handbook, by Dale Pullen ($2.75), which is limited to the Congress only but includes pictures.

(Unfortunately, both these books lack a listing of the caseworkers in congressional offices - the people who actually get the letter you write, and have to act on it.)

For those interested in a different kind of public service, there is The Plum Book (Bolder, $5.95) which simply reprints a House committee list of the job-titles and salaries of appointive government positions outside the Civil Service and its alleged merit system. The book is of interest mostly to financial voyeurs who are titillated to discover that the U.S. Commissioner of the Delaware River Basin Commission makes $37,800 a year for his services to democracy; anyone so poorly connected that he needs this book to find out about an appointment will never end up as a super-grade bureaucrat. But the book may still be worth every penny for the splendid introductory essay by Jack Anderson - surely one of the most lucid, fair-minded and eloquent statements about the bureaucracy ever written, and one which proposes the controversial thesis that the bureaucracy is "a marvel of efficiency" and "indispensable" for the maintenance of our way of life. Crafts and Recreation

For some reason, Americans are desperate to turn their leisure time into a living hell of hard work and capital investment. A host of books has been published to serve that need, and one of the best is The Container Book, by Thelma R. Newman and Jay Hartley Newman (Crown, $7.95). This is as close as you can get to your full money's worth out of a big paperback. Addressed to the craftsman with some dexterity and a knowledge of materials, it surbeys the design principles and construction techniques for all kinds of containers, ranging from simple wooden boxes and woven baskets to more exotic forms of containment like leather, crochet, quilting, polyester resin, stained glass and gourds. And the 800 illustrations are alone enough to provide at least eight dollars worth of visual ideas.

Somewhat less satisfying is The Guitars Friend [sic] (Quick Fox, $4.95), a mail-order catalogue for a guitar-parts emporium in the mountain fastnesses of Idaho. The book may be worth its price as an nostalgia specimen from the wheat germ-and-mocasin era: the lists of musical supplies are interspersed with pen-and-ink drawings, descriptive text in virtually illegible hand calligraphy, and occasional lyric outpourings such as this one, which leads the chapter on harmonicas: "I blew out a brand new harp one night driving all night to see a lady who had had my baby. I blew too hard for a new harp, but sometimes it's worth four dollars to express your feelings." The same may be said of the book.

For traveling in the wild, The Complete Light-Pack Camping and Trail-Foods Cookbook, by Edwin P. Drew (McGraw-Hill, $3.95) is a practical, no-nonsense little book of recipes for sensible and austere dishes like cauliflower salad and potato scones, and includes a guide to nutrition values of various trail foods and some brief recommendations on gear. You can put it in your pack along with Songbirds of the Eastern and Central States, by Trudy L. Rising (Tundra, $3.95), a substantial little book with handsome illustrations, brief but adequate descriptive text with the names of the birds given in both English and French. It must be worth four bucks to know that there are birds named le moquer-chat, la fauvette flamboy-ante, le grimpereau brun, and la corneille americaine (that's a crow, folks).