Carolyn Cameron picks out an Agatha Christie, two John Le Carres, a Harold Robbins -- and "for dessert," a Judith Krantz. An avid reader for most of her 69 years, Cameron is on her weekly reconnaissance run through the new arrivals section of the D.C. Public Library's Palisades branch. It's a mission she calls "a joy inexpressible."

But lately, she says, joy and Palisade's haven't seemed to mix. "I've been in a lot of libraries that smell of mildew," said Cameron, a retired schoolteacher. "But this one smells of fear."

The fear is there because death could be -- perhaps as soon as 21 months from now, at the hands of a financially pinched city government.

Along with at least five other D.C. Public Library neighborhood branches, the 66,000-volume Palisades outlet at 49th and V streets NW almost closed this fall.

But Mayor Marion Barry, who had asked for a $2.8 million citywide cut in library spending for fiscal year 1982, reduced that request to $1.5 million at the last minute. The budget is now before Congress, which is not expected to reduce it futher before fiscal 1982 expires in October 1982.

Since the slash will only be $1.5 million, city library director Hardy Franklin says, the system can "keep everything going in every area in the city at the same level during fiscal 1982 as this year -- barely."

Keeping everything going "most assuredly includes Palisades," Franklin said. However, he said it is "certainly possible" the future financial pressures could raise the specter of branch library closings again.

No one in either the District Building or the library administration ever said publicly that the Palisades branch would have to be closed if Barry's original budget slash had stood. But as Palisades librarian Nelson Cueller put it, "The rumors were pretty strong. I would have been unhappy, but I wouldn't have been surprised."

Since September, however, the main purpose has been the outpouring of community support for the heleaguered Palisades library. "I have been in this system for 21 years," says Cueller, "and I have never been so amazed by anything."

In one week, volunteers increased from one to 12. One volunteer has been so dedicated that she installed anti-theft "tattle tapes" in 30,000 books. (Tattle tapes are strips of magnetized tape that trigger an alarm if a book is taken past an exit without having been properly checked out.)

Overall book circulation during July, August and September showed a larger increase at Palisades than at any of the system's 19 other neighborhood branches. And perhaps most significantly, 400 neighborhood residents joined the Friends of the Palisades Library, a citizens' lobby.

Meanwhile, the total of children's books checked out of Palisades rose from 2,000 in October to 3,000 in November -- " a spectacular increase," according to children's librarian Erica Stokes. The jump came as part of the Friend's campaign to increase use of the library. At the same time, 15 magazine subscriptions that would have lapsed were renewed by Palisades users out of their own pockets.

"Palisades," says Dana Dalrymple, an Agriculture Department economist who is chairman of the Friends, "is the neighborhood that fought back."

The major reason seems to be the place that reading occupies in most neighborhood residents' minds.

At Palisades, prime display space is given to biographies of the likes of Spiro Agnew and Earl Warren, and travel guides to Europe and Japan. All of Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare are available. "Light" magazines such as Glamour and People are in plaing view -- but so are "heavies" such as Foreign Affairs and Harvard Business Review.

"I'm a book freak. I admit it," said photographer and seven-year Palisades resident. Charlie Rother the other day as he sat at a table reading John McPhee on Alaska.

"If it weren't for books, my head wouldn't be in a good place. And the same is true of everybody. I know in this neighborhood. If this library closed, it would be a disaster."

"Books are entertainment for people in Palisades," and Cueller. "That's why mysteries and fiction are so big here. At this branch, people come in on Mondays with the best-seller list from the Sunday New York Times.They stand at the counter and say, 'I want this one, and this one, and this one.'"

"This is a neighborhood full of a lot of educated people, who pass along a love of reading to their kids," said children's librarian Stokes. "And they like good books here. I'm sure there's no other branch in the city where all the copies of 'Little Women' are always checked out."

"Let's face it," adds Daniel Moskowitz, a legal affairs magazine reporter and co-chairman, with Dalrymple, of Friends of Palisades. "This is an affluent neighborhood.Parents in Palisades could afford to buy these books. a

"But it's politically satisfying to have this library, and to have it be so good. A lot of people in Palisades think the library is about the only positive this the D.C. government is doing for them."

Indeed, the existence of the rest of the city is not always apparent along winding MacArthur Boulevard, the neighborhood's main drag.

"It's almost a village-like atmosphere here," said a woman who works a checkout lane in the nearby Palisades Safeway.

"The parents at the school all know each other, and they all care the way they used to in a small town," said Peggy Flynn, a Palisades children's librarian.

The Palisades library may have gotten a stay of execution, but it didn't get a pardon. Thirty-six magazine subscriptions will lapse on Jan. 1 if residents don't pay for them. Hours have been reduced from 70 a week 10 years ago to 40 a week now -- and they may have to be reduced further for budget reasons.

Meanwhile, Palisades' "occupancy count" -- the number of people sitting at its tables when staffers count every half hour -- dropped during the last quarter of fiscal 1980 by 147 people, a little more than two a day. The library's friends are unsure why the number of cutomers has dropped but Cuellar and Dalrymple fear that such statistics may make Palisades vulnerable in future financial emergencies.

For now, however, days Dalrymple, the support for Palisades "has proven once and for all that there is a library constituency up here -- and it doesn't intend to be a quiet one."