Three-thousand librarians came to Washington this week to learn, among other things, how to get money from the federal government or alternatively, how to live without it.

They are attending the semiannual conclave of the American Library Association. The convention includes 1,200 - count 'em - 1,200 committee meetings to discuss topics ranging from "representation in machine-readable from of bibliographic information" to "gay liberation."

The accociation breaks down into 77 subdivisions, some with cute acronyms like FLIRT (Federal Librarians Round Table) and other with strange ones like GODORT (Government Documents Round Table).

And there are caucuses not only for blacks and women but for Jewish librarians, for Italian-American librarians.

The committees and caucuses meet from early morning until late in the evening. Sometimes just a handful of people gather around a small table in a room large enough to hold hundreds.

The halls of the Sheraton Park and Shoreham American hotels are filled with librarians from all over America. And they are not all stereotypical librarians. There are tall, raw-boned librarians in leather jackets and Stetson hats, and bearded librarians in elegant, vested suits.

There are more women librarians here than men, largely because 80 per cent of all American librarians are women, but few are little, old, white-haired ladies with either a perpetual smile or a perpetual frown. Their average age appears to be under 40.

If there is an interest group among them that is per-eminent, if only for its numbers, it is the one that represents job-seekers.

One of the featured attractions of the ALA winter meeting is the job mart. So far, 715 of the 3,000 librarians present have shown interest in finding work or changing jobs. Most are unemployed. Some have been out of work for years.

William Bacharach, who says he is now living "under my brother's roof because I can't support myself," claims to have sent out 5,000 resumes. He has a master's degree in library science from the University of Kentucky, 29 additional credits, and several years' experience. He is not sanguine about his chances.

"I'm giving it two or three more months and then I'm moving to Sante Fe and opening up a coffee shop," he said.

Nancy Helmer earned a master's degree in library science from Syracuse University two years ago. She decided to become a librarian because she was "sick of working in department stores and five-and-dime stores." She holds a bachelor's degree in political science.

Helmer says she has applied for 150 to 200 library jobs in the last two years and hasn't gotten one yet.

"My W-2 income tax statement this year was $9.45," she said, "Can you believe that?"

It's not that there aren't any jobs at all. The ALA listed about 400 jobs at this meeting. But the match-ups were bad.

Explained James L. Tilton, a librarian at the Department, of Housing and Urban Development, helping to run a "Job-Seeker's Comfort Station" and offering "advice to the job-lorn," there are about 10 realistic applicants for every job, and for those without experience, the ratio could be as high as 200 to 1.

"In the government," he said, "you get people with 12 years' experience willing to take a GS-9 position."

He said one applicant told him that he applied at Georgetown University and was told, "Don't bother; we've got 5,000 applications on file we haven't even looked at yet."

Sure, there are jobs, Tilton said, "But who wants to be a cataloguer in East Cupcake, Kan., for $2,000 a year?

The job squeeze hasn't always been so bad for librarians. In fact, in the late 1960s, there were applicants. The master's degree programs began to fill up with women whose children had grown and who were looking for a profession, and with men and women who were finding it difficult to get university teaching posts or other jobs.

Since then, the library science programs have been graduating 8,000 to 9,000 students a year. There was no real growth in federal funds for libraries during those years and the general downturn in economy placed a severe strain on library budgets. Many positions were either eliminated or left unfilled.

Today the economy clearly remains the big problem facing American's libraries - public, school, university and otherwise. One workshop was devoted to teaching librarians and library administrators how to find their way through the bureaucratic maze in search of government funds. Yesterday, the librarians breakfasted with some members of Congress and then held a legislative workshop.

Two days earlier, however, they listened to an address from their executive director, Robert Wedgeworth, entitled "How to Live Happily Without Federal Support."

Wedgeworth noted that libraties get only about 7 per cent of their funds from federal sources, and he said it was probably enough. He indicated that local and state money was usually more responsive to the real needs of libraries and communities.

Some but topics still being debated by the librarians include pornography in public librairies; whether or not library circulating records are confidential under the Praivacy Act; the status of women librarians, who hold few of the top jobs in the profession, and the academic status of university librarians.

There is also an exhibition hall in which publishers and manufacturers of library equipment such as microfilm readers and theft-detection equipment have set up displays.

One woman was selling an anti-theft system in which a 10-cent magnetic strip is inserted along the spine of each book. If the strip is not desensitized, it will set off an alarm as it is carried through a special gate.

She gave her pitch to a scholarly looking man in a vested suit and bow tie. There was some good-humored banter and the man left. A bystanded told the sales woman, who didn't notice who her customer was despite his name tag, that she had let the big one get away.

The man was Daniel Boorstin,librarian of Congress. His collection totals 17.5 million books.