The Office of Personnel Management has a hot potato in its hands, thanks to its efforts to change the job classifications -- and thus the pay scales -- of government librarians.

The classifications of government jobs are reviewed occasionally, more or less at OPM's whim, but in this case the revisions may have ramifications beyond the civil service.

The federal government is one of the largest single employers of librarians--more than 3,300, plus 3,500 information specialists and nearly 1,300 library technicians. There are so many librarians working for the government that Uncle Sam, in effect, sets the standards for the rest of the nation on how much education a librarian needs and how much a librarian ought to be paid. State, local and academic libraries often align their standards with the federal ones, according to the American Library Association.

So when OPM proposed a major revision in the federal occupation standards for library workers last December, the move attracted more than passing notice in the profession. And when part of that revision proved to be a proposal to set GS7 as the entry-level grade for a librarian, with or without a master's degree, the librarians blew their stacks.

Under OPM's current guidelines, any civil servant with a master's degree is eligible to start at the GS9 level, or $20,256 a year, compared with $16,559 for GS7s. ALA officials point out that the GS9 level still applies to comparable civil servants, including accountants, chemists and foresters, and that OPM's revised standards for auditors, which came out in June, still list GS9 as the entry level for holders of a master's.

The difference, as the librarians see it, is that those professions are dominated by men, while 64 percent of the librarians who work for the government are women.

OPM spokesman Pat Korten said the agency is involved in an across-the-board effort to reduce "credentialing" requirements, such as advanced degrees, and that the librarians were not being singled out.

"There is nothing, repeat nothing, valid about the charge that this involves some discrimination involving female-dominated" categories, he said. To the contrary, Korten suggested that OPM's policy would actually help women. "We are trying to minimize credentialing requirements, because we find they work against women," he said.

But asked if OPM intends to change standards for chemists or foresters to place less value on a master's, Korten replied: "I don't want to pin myself down to some specific statement of what we would or would not do in a case like that."

To the librarians, that smacks of inconsistency at the least. A more forthright opinion comes from Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Post Office and Civil Service subcommittee on human resources and a congressional activist for pay equity, or equal pay for comparable work. In a recent letter to OPM director Donald J. Devine, Ferraro accused the agency of "duplicity" and suggested there was an element of sexism in the proposed changes.

Ferraro was particularly incensed by OPM's refusal to grant a second formal review period on its proposals, which came out in revised form in August after the initial comment period drew a large number of mostly negative comments.

Ferraro noted that OPM had agreed to do a second review of the proposed changes in the classification of federal contract and procurement officers, and told Devine: "There appears to be only one major difference between the two. The library profession is female-dominated, while the contract and procurement field is male-dominated."

Several agencies with significant numbers of librarians had asked for a second review of the standards. But it wasn't until Friday, and then only with a request from Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) in hand, that Devine agreed to reopen the review of the librarians' standards.

A second review is "very unusual," Devine said. "The only other case my staff can tell me of is on the contract procurement officers."

As for the charge that his agency is discriminating on the basis of sex, Devine replied, "That's ridiculous."