Nobody has ever made this much noise before in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress. Nearly three weeks after the room began closing at 5:30 instead of 9:30 p.m. weeknights -- part of Librarian Daniel Boorstin's response to a cut of $18 million from his $238 million budget -- a determined group of people calling themselves the "Books Not Bombs Campaign" are still demonstrating.

The scene is the same each night that the library closes early -- that is, every weeknight but Wednesday. At 5:30, library security police swarm around the raised central circulation desk, which converts more readily to a command post than one might expect. Associate Librarian Edward Curran announces that the library is officially closed. About 50 protesters begin shouting, "Books, not bombs!" and make short speeches, mostly about the defense budget and the nation's skewed priorities. Then they leave, except for two or three who have arranged to get arrested. Last Monday, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson showed up, the noise level was further lifted by fervent renditions of "America the Beautiful" and the "Star- Spangled Banner."

Jackson, asked why he got involved, said it was "a good clean moral challenge and a clear- cut case." A Hill staffer says the closed reading room "dramatizes what's happening to education and the pursuit of knowledge on a massive but unrecognized scale." The note most frequently struck is outrage at the disparity between the relatively small amount of money involved (less than a fifth of the proposed contra aid, protesters point out) and military budget levels.

And yet for all those who complained in the fall that Gramm-Rudman was a symptom of budgetary "paralysis," this textbook protest offers a living example of the inability to set budget priorities. The likelihood that anyone but the already-converted will be persuaded by this protest to move money from the military to the domestic budget is minuscule -- for several unavoidable reasons.

First, the wrong people are spearheading the protest. The library issue is symbolically powerful because it galvanizes a more articulate group than most social-spending cuts: as one protester explains, "It gets more upper- class people involved, because education, access to information, is how they got where they are." That worked while the protest remained a quiet sit-in; those who stayed were teachers, researchers, people who work full- time and want to better themselves in the library by night.

When the arrests started, though, the everyday teachers and researchers disappeared. "I can't get arrested just like that," said a Prince George's County reading teacher when the library announced the policy, "I'd have to arrange for a substitute." "My car's parked near here," said another, "I'll get a ticket."

Those who stayed around for arrest, and have kept the campaign going, are mostly more seasoned types, veterans of other protests. Their insistence on a broad political approach -- condemning U.S. militarism, for example -- has cost them the sympathy of the initially pleased library staff. Nor can they claim as persuasively to be affected personally. One day last week, three arrestees were whisked off through the reading room's back exit, and a group of protesters ran around outside to meet them at the back. Outside in the parking lot, a library security guard blandly declined to say whether the arrestees would be brought out that way at all. "Well, it's the only exit, isn't it?" demanded a protester in pugnacious tones, prompting laughter from several passers-by who actually use the place.

A related problem is that the protest is inconveniencing the wrong people. Staff and police at first seemed to be enjoying the protests, even, on occasion, quietly chanting along with the "Books Not Bombs" slogan. "Look at this place," said security guard H. P. Mathias, gesturing around the ornate lobby. "It's beautiful. People shouldn't be kept out of it." The staff's sympathy has worn thin, though, as time passes and it becomes more likely that the money being spent to handle protesters will eat up the budget. If the library runs out of money, they are the ones who will get furloughed in the fall.

Finally, and most important, the wrong people (so to speak) are listening. Gramm-Rudman and the budget process as a whole ensure that the only people who can act on the protesters' logic -- by restoring the library cuts -- are those already predisposed to hear them, not those in charge of setting large-scale priorities. Call it a variation on the old special-interests problem. In practical terms, the protesters' immediate targets are such people as Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee, which handles the legislative budget. The library is one line item in Congress' operating budget, which took first regular and then Gramm-Rudman cuts. Fazio held a hearing in early February at which librarian Boorstin pleaded, in well-publicized but unavailing testimony, that the library be spared.

Fazio could not be more hotly for libraries or against Gramm-Rudman. He not only voted against the automatic budget-cutting law but was one of the dozen congressmen to sue it. He told Boorstin that he was helpless, but the protest, he says now, has impressed him; the odds are "pretty good" that the library will get some money back when the bill is marked up later this spring. The money will come from some other part of the funds the subcommittee controls -- the already tight Hill operating budget -- not from the allocation for "bombs."

-- Amy E. Schwartz is a member of the editorial page staff.