She may speak softly, but Krystyna Wasserman is not your typical librarian. Her holdings include a vibrant pop-up book, a paint box stuffed with memorabilia, and a book-object comprising antlers, fishbone and wire, all of which can be checked out (figuratively, at least) in "Books as Art XI" at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

For the past 11 years Wasserman, who is the museum's librarian, has cultivated a collection of artists' books that now numbers 500. The often beautiful, occasionally funny and always unique volumes appear in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and formats.

"So many ideas are hidden inside these books," says Wasserman, who from the start saw more than just a standard research library for the museum. As part of the original development team working out of cramped quarters on Connecticut Avenue in the early '80s, Wasserman found she had the freedom to design her space any way she wished. "I envisioned a resource facility but also a place where people can get up after doing research and be inspired by looking at something beautiful," she says.

When the museum opened in 1987, the result was a cozy library with the traditional stacks and study tables as well as display cases that over the years have featured books created by scores of artists. Pages from artists' books cover the walls, as well.

"It's unique that I'm allowed to do these exhibits," says Wasserman, who also oversees a staff of seven and performs other duties. "Usually curators don't let librarians do anything."

Growing up in Poland, Wasserman, 60, certainly didn't intend to become an expert in artists' books, but the field is a perfect marriage of her interests. She always loved art--her uncle was a painter--and her training is in library science (she also holds a master's degree in art). She first discovered book art in a New York gallery and fell in love with what she calls an "intimate art form." Now she spends much of her time traveling to see works in person. "Even if I am on vacation I go to studios," she says. Wasserman curates a new show about every six months on a shoestring budget of $5,000.

Two years after she started the exhibits, Wasserman set about nurturing the art form itself by initiating a grant program. Each year 10 fellows at the NMWA contribute $1,000 each. After sifting through artist applications, the group selects one book to publish in a limited edition of 125 copies. The artist gets 25 copies of the book, each fellow receives a copy, and the rest are sold to support the museum's programs. California artist Kazuko Watanabe's "Diary of a Sparrow," a tribute to her grandfather, won the most recent grant.

If extra funds remain, often another book benefits with a small printing, such as one work in the current exhibit, Laurie Jean Jackson's "A Man May Work From Sun to Sun, but a Woman's Work Is Never Done," which explores the division of household labor.

Wasserman decides on each show's theme, and once in a while the idea has a personal thread. "Brave Little Girls," one of the most popular exhibits, featured books about girls and young women of courage, accomplishment and imagination.

"I never really had enough time to read all these children's books because of growing up during wartime," says Wasserman, who remembers taking refuge with her family in bomb shelters during World War II. She wrote in that catalogue's introduction that the exhibit posed an opportunity to "discover and reclaim the childhood I never had." The show traveled for a year and a half all over the country, stopping only because some of the artists had to reclaim their work.

Over the years Wasserman has developed a loyal audience for her shows, people who know to take the elevator to the fourth floor, make a left just before the reception desk and follow a short hallway to the library. Wasserman leaves tasteful blank books for comments by the entrance and she now has several volumes of feedback, most of it positive.

"I remember one person wrote, 'As soon as I leave here I'm going to make a book,' " says Wasserman, smiling at the memory. "That's what it's for."

"Book as Art XI" runs through Dec. 31 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW. 202-783-5000. Free.

Arts Bit

The Phillips Collection closes for renovations Sept. 7 and reopens Sept. 25 with the exhibit "Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips." For information call 202-387-2151.

CAPTION: "So many ideas are hidden inside these books," says Krystyna Wasserman.

CAPTION: "The Diary of a Sparrow," by Kazuko Watanabe.