Part of the image of historic preservation is that it is the concern of little old ladies in tennis shoes who plant themselves in the paths of oncoming bulldozers.

Preservation in the United States has been primarily the activity of private groups that have organized to save buildings and find new uses for them. They have given a new lease on life to railroad stations, movie theaters, city halls, churches and post offices (including one on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue NW). In addition, thousands of row houses, farmhouses, bungalows and mansions throughout the county have been save through the efforts of preservationists.

Some buildings that should have been save have been lost, however, in part because of the growing pressure to redevelop America's downtowns. In large cities, there is a willingness to adapt old mills and factories for stores and residential uses.

But shopping centers and housing tracts are beginning to encroach in hundreds of small towns near major metropolitan area. Preservation-oriented planners, developers, lenders and leaders of citizens groups, along with the owners of historic buildings, are looking for tools to help them decide what should be saved and how they can do it.

Now aid, comfort and good advise are available in a new book, Historic Preservation in Small Towns, by ARTHUR P. Ziegler Jr. and Walter C. Kidney (American Association on State and Local History, 1400 Eighth Ave. South, Nashville, Tenn. 37203, $6.95). It is a manual for preservationists who live in town with populations of less than 50,000. Preservation has barely touched these towns, whose streets are lines with rich (if sometimes mangled) examples of the best of America's past.

These towns -- such as Fredericksburg, Middleburg and Leesburg, Va., and Oxford and Frederick, Md. -- have a sense of community, history and place that has not been wiped away by the postwar standardization of architecture.

Zeigler and Kidney want residents of small towns to be able to adapt preservation techniques to local use. Small-town preservationists often have less money and less help than their counterparts in large cities.

Government resources are less accessible in small towns and there are few governmental tools such as zoning or planning to control development. Property owners there -- as elsewhere -- don't want anyone, including preservationists, to tell them what they can or cannot do with their land.

Historic Preservation in Small Towns describes how to organize a preservation group, identify allies and decide on goals. It defines the possible and practical in saving old buildings and selling them to the public and tells how to make the kind of survey that can help place properties on the National Register of Historic Places.

The book is a valuable resource for beginners, directing them to the best sources of information, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and state historic presevation officers.