IN her new autobiography, ''One Writer's Beginnings,'' Eudora Welty speaks about her lifelong passion for books and the printed word. ''. . . I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with (books),'' she confesses, '' - with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.''
Books were the gifts of her childhood in every sense. She recalls: ''I was presented, from as early as I can remember, with books of my own, which appeared on my birthday and Christmas morning. Indeed, my parents could not give me books enough.''
For many of us whose childhood bookshelves were less amply filled, it was the public library that provided ''books enough.'' No less than with Miss Welty, these books were our gifts, too. There was nothing pristine about those volumes - coded with due dates and labeled on the inside ''Rockford Free Public Library.'' But we came to find a certain charm in the ragged bindings, the crushed corners, the dogeared or underlined pages.
Seated at Lilliputian tables in the ''Children's Corner,'' we made our first discoveries of a world beyond the limits of our quiet Midwestern city in the 1950s. A world of witty, talking animals, medieval knights and princesses in castle towers, and assorted heroes and heroines.
Decades later, details of the Highland Branch Library remain indelibly printed in memory: the blond furniture and green tile floor, the smell of paper and paste, the ever-presence of Mrs. Skinner, fitting everybody's stereotype of a librarian with her salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a tidy bun and her prim but friendly smile. Mrs. Skinner was as in love with books as Eudora Welty, and she had the librarian's special genius for making a match between the right reader and the right book.
The law of childhood reading is that thin books with fat type turn into fat books with thin type as you move into what, in those days, was quaintly termed the ''Youth Section.'' But the ultimate rite of passage was the card entitling us to check out books for ''Adults.'' No badge of maturity since has meant more.
Unlike the plots of its ''Children's Corner'' books, the Highland Branch Library did not live happily ever after. This landmark of our childhood could not withstand the ravages of inflation and the effects of municipal conservatism. When a referendum failed in 1978, the tan brick building was transformed into the Milo Beauty and Barber Supply Company, with shampoos and curling irons stacked where books once stood.
Books were sold off for 25 cents each. Who got the fat, rain-spotted copy of Richard Halliburton's ''Complete Book of Marvels''? Who bought the orange biography of Louisa May Alcott? What would Mrs. Skinner have said? And what of the young readers who must now be driven several miles to the nearest library?
Five years ago libraries everywhere seemed an endangered species. Now, for some, the darkest hour may have passed. For the first time in seven years, the New York Public Library is again open on Thursdays. The Boston Public Library has restored full-day service on Mondays. And in Rockford, Ill., once home of the Highland Branch, a successful referendum last month prevented a cutback of $ 800,000. It also provides sufficient operating funds for the next several years and preserves 19 staff positions.
Still, in 1984, even as National Library Week is being celebrated, no one seems quite clear about what a library's purpose should be. A supplier of books? Of audiovisual equipment? Of computers? All must compete for limited funds, and it sometimes appears that books are losing respect, even among librarians.
Never has the printed word faced so much competition for a young reader's time and attention: from computers, video games, and cable TV.
As futurists cheerfully describe a world in which ''information retrieval'' depends on microchips and microfilms, there is a growing sense that the printed word is becoming a horse-and-buggy vehicle.
Gutenberg would not be amused, and neither are some of the rest of us. Information is important, but so are novels and poetry - all the forms of ''communication'' not about to be contained in data banks, demanding to be ''captured and carried off to (oneself),'' as Eudora Welty described the reading process.
If Miss Welty had not ''captured and carried off'' her books, would she have grown up to write her short stories? And if there were no libraries, would the rest of us be able to capture and carry off Welty collections and read about the postmistress heroine of ''Why I Live at the P.O.,'' who grows butter beans out front of her little Mississippi post office, and inside arranges her radio, her sewing machine, and - last but not least - her bookends ''cater-cornered, the way I like it''?
On such a scene we would rest our case for books and for libraries.