In 1981, the Government Printing Office was a physical and technological relic.

The agency's 80-year-old brick buildings on North Capitol Street were hardly the model of a modern printing plant. Inside, type was set on vintage-1940s Linotypes. The Congressional Record and Federal Register, the GPO's most important products, were bound on a 30-year-old contraption that wheezed and sputtered.

Today the building remains but the Linotypes are gone, the binder has been replaced and a new spirit of businesslike management has replaced the "ol' boy network" that critics say used to run the place. Marketing programs have been developed to encourage more people to buy government publications.

Still some critics are concerned that, in trying to put the printing plant on a sounder financial footing, GPO officials have been forced to raise prices for some government information to levels that many people can't afford.

Looking back on the old days, GPO Comptroller Gerald E. Sebold said, "We had a sales program that lost money. No more." In fiscal 1980 and 1981, the "sales" program lost $12.9 million. But in fiscal 1983 and 1984, it earned $15.8 million.

Over the past few years, Sebold said, the GPO developed catalogs to describe its publications, sought free television and radio ads, sold publications through retail bookstores and signed up about 200 book dealers to sell publications door-to-door for a commission.

Many of the changes were instituted by Danford L. Sawyer Jr., President Reagan's first public printer. The tough-talking Sawyer had rough going in the early days when he butted heads with union leaders concerned that more automation would mean a loss of jobs. But in the end, Sawyer was able to accomplish many of his goals.

Few observers say the GPO has solved all its problems, but the consensus is that the agency is now pointed in the right direction.

Under federal law, agencies have to turn to the GPO to do most of their printing. In turn, the GPO contracts out about 73 percent of the work to more than 8,000 firms.

But should the GPO mark up their price? Should agencies be allowed to run their own print shops or solicit their own firms to do their work? Questions like these have not been resolved.

"Agencies had gotten to the point in 1980 where they didn't want GPO handling their printing, because they didn't know when they'd get the work back or if it would be done right," said Robin A. (Rob) Atkiss, chairman of the Federal Publishers Association, a group of agency officials. Atkiss, a publishing officer for the Health and Human Services Department, said Sawyer "helped smooth relations between the agencies and GPO, although there's still some ways to go."

"In the past, when a small agency complained to GPO they were generally told, 'You're the only one who complains,' " added Henry Lowenstern, president of the National Association of Government Communicators, which represents agency public affairs officials. "It wasn't true. That's one reason why Federal Publishers and Government Communicators were set up in the 1970s . When we learned we all had common problems with GPO, our clout increased."

Acting Public Printer William J. Barrett, who took over after Sawyer resigned in January, said he plans to create an "ombudsman's office" to handle agency complaints and help smooth relations.

Sawyer "was rough around the edges," Barrett said. "I think I'm different, in that I can get along with the Congress while still executing the programs he put in place. This is not the type of organization where you can make some changes and then do nothing for years."

"In many ways they're ahead, in other ways they're behind," said Thomas J. Kleis, staff director of the congressional Joint Committee on Printing, adding that if Sawyer "had spent more time correcting eficiencies that really existed, such as the technology shortcomings, my overall assessment of his years as public printer would not be that he had set them back." Kleis contended that Sawyer brought in new systems but tended to favor technology he was familiar with rather than state-of-the-art improvements.

Teresa Nasif, director of the Consumer Information Center, which distributes government publications free or at low cost, told of initial fears that Sawyer would "want to do everything for money." But, she said, "Now, looking back, his interest in marketing publications has helped us."

Both Lowenstern and Atkiss, however, expressed concern about the impact of the new pricing policies, in which publications are supposed to be priced to recoup their printing costs.

"Our organization has taken a strong position on the public's right to know about its government," said Lowenstern, who is associate commissioner for publications at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "We oppose needless restrictions to information, even if they are economic restrictions, such as unusually high prices for publications that put them out of reach of the consumers they were designed for."