Washington area schools are struggling to find qualified applicants to run what were once simply known as school libraries but are now high-tech hubs of computer-related resources called library media centers.

Some librarians have retired early as the transition from books and card catalogues to the Internet and sophisticated databases has changed their job descriptions, seemingly overnight. Such retirements, coupled with a wave of expected baby-boomer retirements in the next several years, are leaving vacancies that are proving difficult to fill--both locally and nationwide.

In Maryland, Virginia and the District, at least half of all library media specialists are expected to retire in the next five to 10 years, school officials said.

"This is such a critical problem," said Gail Bailey, a media services supervisor for the Maryland Department of Education. "The [media centers] support every single other program in a school building on a daily basis."

Many local school districts still are scrambling to fill several open positions before classes start. Temporary workers or uncertified librarians may have to be hired to fill many vacancies, some officials report.

"We are really trying to get people hired," said Linda Williams, supervisor of media services in Prince George's County, which has 17 vacancies, the largest number in the region. "But we are fortunate to get even a few."

In the last five years, at least 10 percent of the media specialists in Prince George's have been recruited by neighboring school systems, particularly Montgomery County, where average salaries are $6,000 to $9,000 higher, Williams said.

Because each Prince George's principal sets his or her own budget for library materials and supplies, wide disparities in the quality of software, equipment and research databases exist from school to school, Williams said. That can dissuade some applicants, Williams said.

Fairfax County often loses out similarly to Arlington County, where salaries are often a few thousand dollars higher and per-pupil expenditures on library materials and supplies are twice as high. Arlington spends $30 a pupil on library materials and supplies, among the highest in the region, according to the various school district offices.

Since the middle of the summer, Fairfax has been offering $1,000 signing bonuses in addition to a starting salary of about $34,000. The school district had 23 openings to fill this year, and five remain vacant, Fairfax school officials said.

Media specialist responsibilities generally include maintaining a computer lab, managing a staff and a budget, reviewing new computer programs, approving the Internet sites students can use, teaching students how to use the technology, developing curriculum and trouble-shooting network and hardware problems.

"It's a little daunting," said Kathy Giesey, 52, who will be a media specialist in the library at Takoma Park Middle School starting this year after a nearly two-decade hiatus to raise her family. "At some point, I realized what a great change there was in the whole of research. . . . There is an acquisition of information from the entire world now, not just the classroom or library."

Giesey, who received her master's degree in library science in 1973, bought a home computer in 1994 and read up on all of the latest educational software in preparation for her return. She also worked as an assistant and substitute library specialist to expose herself to today's media centers.

In areas where the shortage is particularly chronic and critical, some school districts actively recruit teachers to be trained in the latest technology so they eventually can become media specialists.

In Maryland, three counties--Prince George's, Baltimore and Howard--have set up tuition-reimbursement programs for teachers to attend the University of Maryland at College Park or Towson University.

The teachers continue to teach while taking classes toward a master's degree in library science. Tuition will be paid by the county and the universities. Anne Arundel County is considering a similar program. In Virginia, Fairfax County has a similar arrangement with George Mason University. Professors teach some classes in Fairfax schools so teachers don't have to commute far. The school district pays tuition for one course a semester.

To be certified, a library media specialist must get a master's degree in library science or complete almost the equivalent number of classes. In Maryland, Virginia and the District, library media specialists also must be certified to teach.

Locally, the University of Maryland, Towson University, Western Maryland University, Catholic University and George Mason University offer library science programs, each usually graduating less than 25 certified library specialists a year, officials said.

In Prince George's County, Williams also has tapped a novel source: parents. A handful of parents who have volunteered in school libraries have gone back to school to study library science, she said.

"These are wonderful, viable options for careers," Bailey said, noting that most students who want to teach don't realize how much teaching is now done by media specialists.

Ken Reed, director of technology services and resources for Alexandria schools, said school systems are stymied by the fact that undergraduates with good technological know-how often are lured to more lucrative jobs.

"Being a [media specialist] is not one of the more glamorous of technology jobs," Reed said. "A lot of people see themselves in classrooms and not in the library. . . . That's because it is a job that is not well understood and appreciated."

CAPTION: Kathy Giesey will be a media specialist at the library media center in Takoma Park Middle School this year. "At some point I realized what a great change there was in the whole of research," she says.