A piddling $3,900 -- about the price of a new subcompact car -- might never be missed from a stack of billions, but therein lies a story of the Great Washington Budget Game.

The GWBG, as we will call it, is the ritualistic process that occurs when a president unveils his new federal budget, as Jimmy Carter did yesterday.

A part of that game is the anguished rhetoric and the flinty cut-the-spending cries you will hear over the next few months. Another part of it is the wheeling and dealing that will go on as Congress and special interests grapple over divvying up the federal dollar.

That is where the $3,900 comes in.

That is an amount that Carter and his budget advisers decided the government to longer could afford to hand over to Durham Technical Institute, a small two-year college in North Carolina, to keep its library up to snuff.

One of the elements in the GWBG, of course, is inflation, which Carter has pledged to fight by cutting federal spending. But the inflation that has skyrocketed the cost of books and magazines is eating Durham Tech alive.

The little school's dilemma is a microcosm of the bigger fight that will rage in coming months over the budget, the economy and the priorities and values of a president and a Congress.

Durham Tech's library money comes from Title II-A of the Higher Education Act. That section authorizes flat grants to college libraries, from a Harvard to a Durham Tech, to add to their collections.

Carter wants to cut it back to zero this year. He proposed the same thing last year. That idea got caught up in the GWBG, however, and Congress appropriated $9.9 million to be split up among the schools.

Another element appears at about this point in the GWBG -- practical politics, call it. Books cast few votes, and an administration that cuts school library funds runs low risk, yet wins credit for economies. A Congress that restores library money wins credit for sagacity.

In Title II-A this process has occurred every year since 1974. A president proposes a cut, Congress puts some money back -- not as much as the colleges want, but enough to mollify them.

Why, then, does the White House Office of Management and Budget bother to tinker with a Title II-A or any other of the smaller federal programs, be it in energy or agriculture?

"Officially," said a school-aid man at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, "I have to tell you that the library program is no good -- it's an ineffective and unwise use of federal money. But the fact is that money is vital to many of the smaller institutions, where it may as much as double their library spending. An instructional program is only as good as its library, you know."

Chris Cross, a Washington consultant, offered another view from his vantage point as a former deputy assistant secretary of HEW and congressional staff aide:

"This is a dance that goes on every year.The issues that are picked for cuts are the most likely to be restored by Congress. At OMB, where they make these decisions, they try to pick programs where the federal impact is not very great, where the political risk is slight. It's part of the modus operandi, part of the job description."

But when a president talks about cutting college library money, more than education is involved. If a book or a magazine is not sold, it may mean a writer doesn't write, an editor doesn't edit, a printer doesn't print, a salesman doesn't sell, a mailer doesn't mail, a trucker doesn't truck.

Somewhere around Washington, most of those people have a friend looking after their interests. In some cases it may be no more than a hometown member of Congress. In others, it may be a trade or professional organization.

Durham Tech's need for $3,900, which pays for about a third of its new library material, from professional journals to monthly magazines, illustrates the point.

"We have a modest library, and without the federal money we would have a serious problem," said Brenda Nunn, Tech's library coordinator. "Our acquisitions are geared directly to the courses we offer. I can guarantee you if they decide to cut this money, everybody down here will be on the ball to support it."

The first thing they would do, Nunn said, would be to tell the area's congressman, Rep. Ike F. Andrews (D-N.C.), about the problem. On top of that, Durham Tech would have plenty of additional help.

Already honing their spears are some of the regular players in the GWBG. They include the American Library Association (libraries), the Association of American Publishers (books), the Association of Media Producers (films), the National Education Association (teachers-schools), the U.S. Catholic Conference (schools), the American Council on Education (colleges), the AFL-CIO (labor).

They and perhaps several hundred more education-interest groups based here look after the fate of Title II-A as well as dozens of other programs that provide money for books, libraries, schools and, ultimately, writers, editors, printers, salesmen, mailers and truckers.

If they do not get their way with the White House and OMB -- and they did not in total library resource spending, which Carter wants to cut from the present $266 million to $233 million -- they will turn to Capitol Hill.

Letters and calls from librarians and school people will begin to be orchestrated to the hometown members of Congress, association lobbyists will visit Appropriations committee members, offer testimony, provide data.

"It is a game," said Roy Millenson of the Publishers Association. "Does OMB know, for example, that Congress will put Title II-A money back in the budget? It has every year since 1974... Do they really want to economize, or are they telling Congress to put the money back and cut out something else? And then people on the committees have a limited number of things they can put in amendments for, and that is part of the game. Now, with new members on these committees, some wary of spending too much, we have to cultivate them. But actually, that $9 million for college libraries is just a pimple on the back of some other bigger programs."

Because Title II-A is a "pimple" there has been a traditional reluctance in Congress to do much surgery.

"This year it's different," said Eileen Cook, an ALA lobbyist who is regarded as Ms. Library around Congress. "The little money for colleges is shocking, but there is a Democrat in the White House and a more conservative Congress. The psychological impact of those zeroes in the budget is clean-cut. It is going to be tougher this year, like a poker game. The members go into the committees with a stack of chips and they have to decide where to put them. There's very little room for them to maneuver."

If it is poker they are playing with Durham Tech, as the White House might agree, it is also politics, and no one who supports library funding forgets 1976.

In July, when he was still a candidate, Jimmy Carter said some interesting things about libraries and the "anti-in-tellectual" policies of "thoughtless" Republicans named Nixon and Ford who slashed library spending.

"We need a new, revitalized effort to save our libraries and to make them strong bastions against illiteracy and ignorance... I believe that federal help for the nation's library system should be funded on a sustained and stable basis," Carter said.

That was, of course, before he became a player in the GWBC.