One result of the high-tech/information age is that competitively useful information of all kinds -- about products, markets, companies, and technical developments -- is available to the public. Many small-company managers, however, are finding the data hard to obtain.

Pasadena, Calif.-based Glass Instruments Inc., for instance, often needs to check on existing patents and current technical information, but none of its 16 employees are trained to use technical databases. Nor can the company afford to maintain a technical or publications library. So what does office manager Dorothy Harkness do? She calls NASA.

The Los Angeles office of the NASA Industrial Application Center (NIAC), a nonprofit program of the space agency, specializes in searching more than 400 databases of all kinds, particularly for small companies that don't use databases often enough to justify training their personnel.

The searches can be conducted while you're linked to NIAC by phone and computer, so you can direct the search and immediately download interesting information to your PC. On average, searches cost between $140 and $300 per topic, depending on the databases used. For more information, call NIAC at the University of Southern California, (213) 743-6132.