About 100 people were drinking and talking among the library stacks and typewriters and file cabinets. One happy guest murmured, "Isn't it wonderful that a magazine that never turned a profit can win an award?"

Members of the news media, White House staffers and government sources came to honor the National Journal yesterday. After a rocky beginning and respectable if obscure childhood, the 10-year-old nonpartisan Washington political weekly with 3,-800 circulation had won one of the most prestigious awards in the magazine field-the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism National Magazine Award.

Both the right and left of thinking-tankdom were present-William Baroody of the American Enterprise Institute and Richard Nathan of Brookings-and both praised the objectivity and perception of the Journal's reporting. In May, the AEI will cosponsor one of the many issue-oriented conferences that help keep the Journal financially afloat.

For such a restrained and scholarly publication, the National Journal has a history of heated squabbles and staff machinations to rival any popular periodical.

"We were all groping," at the beginning, recalls Richard Corrigan, the magazinehs energy writer and a long-time survivor, "trying to decide what kind of coverage, tone, how much detail we wanted. Through the years there were blood on the floor. The first editor was gone by the time the first issue came out."

The problem of ego clashes and battles over the magazine's direction was compounded by its size.

"Ours is a classic reverse-success story," says Tim Clark, another survivor. "Instead of starting small we started big- with way too large a staff- and grew small." After a few years, Clark was one of the recipients of a pewter engraved "National Journal Survivor Cup" presented by F. Randolph Smith, a Wall Street investor who helped bankroll the magazine initially. Smith, one of two original owners, had another such set of cups made up a few years later but never got them engraved. "Before he got around to it, Smith himself got the ax," says Clark.

And Dom Bonafede, senior editor and veteran of 10 newspapers and magazines, including the New York Herald Tribune and Newsweek, says "while the Journal product was very serious, the people were a tremendously wild group. There was more drinking going on after dark than at any place I ever worked." His loyalty to the Journal in part stems from the freedom "to have the time to do what you want to do. You know, most of my friends aren't journalists. They're academicians."

In its early days, when the Journal more or less emulated the Congressional Quarterly, it sometimes "almost looked like the Federal Register. It's gotten a lot brighter and livelier," one staffer said.

Today, the Journal is highly respected for its thorough political coverage, its detailed reporting on Congress and the White House, and its treatment of such complex issues as economics and energy.

A typical 40-page issue will contain nine or 10 main aritcles on weighty matters like Mexican natural gas, regulatory reform, pension funds, the State of the Union address or congressional committee appointments. Occasionally, there are lighter pieces like "Getting Along in the Carter White House," a discussion of dual-income households among government appointees or profiles of influential figures. In addition, each issue has a Washington Update feature of short, sometimes humorous items and press reports, and a two-page People section with news on individual personalities.

For writers whose ego gratification is based on the size of readership, the Journal has always had its drawbacks. One staffer call it a "kind of a secret magazine," although circulation is up by 1,000 since John Fox Sullivan became publisher four year ago.

But egos are gratified, Sullivan believes, by the prestige of it all: "We tried to create a very sophisticated trade publication for 'policy players'. I like to think of it as a game. We have a high-level impact on key people- on the Hill, in the White House, lobbyists, the media."

Sullivan estimates that there are 10 readers per subscription. "We are 'buck slipped' (sent around to several people per office) and xeroxed like mad," he says.

In addition to the prestige and relatively high salaries- reporters earn between $25,000 and $35,000- writers also have the time and freedom to develop stories on their own. The combination, Sullivan says, has allowed the Journal to retain staffers despite radis from big-circulation newspapers and magazines.

This was not always the case. Karen DeWitt, now with the New York Times, worked at the Journal from 1972 to 1974. "It was a good magazine even then, but it was very disconcerting," she recalls. "You could go to lunch and come back and find a pink slip in your typewriter because the publisher was displeased with your story. There was no union, and someone once said the door to the National Journal was like a merry-go-round."

DeWitt was a victim of the "great Valentine's Day Massacre" when, she recalls, 17 members were axed on Valentine's Day 1974, in an economic cutback. But "it was the greatest training ground," she says. "In the old days, it was like an encycolpedia. Now it's much more lively, but as a journalist, you read it for reference, not pleasure. If you want to know about lobbying or campaign financing or whatever, they've done it."

The National Magazine Award cited a Journal article on federal spending for the elderly and its examination of the sociological impact the elderly will have on the federal budget.

Asked if success would spoil the National Journal, Corrigan laughed and said. "I doubt that at $345 a year [the annual subcription cost] we'll ever be all that widely read- but it sure is nice to get an award."

And Bonafede says he is certain that success would not spoil the Journal, "because it will never be successfull." He smiles and adds. "Financially, that is." CAPTION: Picture 1, National Journal staffers, from left: Richard S. Frank, John Fox Sullivan, Joel Havemann, Richard A. Bloom and Jake Welch; by Fred Sweets; Picture 2, National Journal publisher John Fox Sullivan, by Fred Sweets-The Washington Post