Doing "desbib": an example and a short guide (see below for link to the full "Introduction")
A bibliographic description of a book edition from which trained readers can reconstruct all complete copies of the edition would include a diplomatic transcription of the title page, a careful representation of page count and page numbering of all sections, and a careful representation of the signatures:
THE HISTORY OF / THE CHURCH OF / ENGLANDE / Compiled by Venerable Bede, / Englishman. / Translated out of Latin in to English by Thomas / Stapleton Student in Diuinite. / [text] / [oval printer's mark--sower and seed--surrounding text "Spes Alit Agricolas"] / Imprinted at Antwerp: By Iohn Laet, / at the signe of the Rape: with / Priuilege, Anno, 1565.
, 192, ; 19 cm. (4to). Signed [asterisk]6, [triangle]4, [parallel lines]4, A-3C4. Numbered 1-164 [165-168 misnumbered 164] 169-92.
Open the hyperlink above in a new window and compare the image of the title page with what you see in the "diplomatic transcription" of its contents, which is meant to indicate precisely what type is on the title page and how it is laid out. The virgule or "slash" (/) indicates a line break.
The information below the title page transcription tells the bibliographer that there are fourteen un-numbered pages of front matter (numbers in square brakets=no numbers printed on the page), followed by 192 numbered pages, followed by four un-numbered pages of back matter. The typesetters mistakenly forgot to change the page numbers in the "skeleton," the header and footer type, from 164 to 165-68, but they corrected the count in pages 169-92, and nobody thought it was important enough an error to pull the mistaken sheets and reprint them. It may seem obvious, but we need to remember that the page numbers were set in type to guide readers, who had come to expect such apparatus by 1565 although the earliest printed books had no numbering at all, and even the intermediate era works only "foliated" the right side of each leaf.
Following overall survey of the book's construction (front matter, main text, back matter), the description tells us about the size and format of the book. In this instance, the whole page before rebinding was 19 centimeters high (though our copy might be shorter). The format is quarto (4to, usually just 4o), i.e., each sheet was printed with four different pages' text on it, and the resulting sheets were folded twice and cut once to make four leaves or eight pages nested together in the proper order. Because of this the leaves' chainlines are horizontal, and fragments of half watermarks are found in the middle of the "gutter" or sewing edge of some leaves.
After the book's physical appearance, the "desbib" tells us in what units it was printed and how those units were bound together by the bookbinder. Superscript numbers indicate the number of leaves in a "gathering" or folded group of leaves that were printed together. At the bottom of the first leaf in the first gathering of six leaves was an asterisk "signature" to tell the bookbinder to place that bundle of leaves first, followed by a gathering of four leaves whose first was signed with a triangle, and four more leaves whose first leaf was signed with parallel lines. Finally, the main body of the text was bound together in gatherings of four leaves each, the bottom of the first gathering's leaf being signed A through Z, AA through ZZ, and AAA through CCC (omitting the characters "J," "U" and "W" which did not exist in the Latin alphabet, which used "i," "v" and "uu" instead). For this reason, a complete A-Z signature series in "threes" would be composed of groups of three leaves signed plus their three "conjoint" partner leaves, without signatures, on the other side of the fold. The total number of leaves would be 24 x 3, or 69 leaves, though there also might be "front matter," usually signed with non-alphabetic symbols, and "back matter," sometimes signed with a second alphabet or non-alphabetical symbols. See the "asterisk," "parallel lines" etc. for the Bede edition above. These segments of the text are indicated separately from the main body of the edition because they usually were printed after the main body of the edition. The signature letters and numbers were only placed on the page to guide the bookbinder who assembled the loose sheets into the book, but they later were invaluable evidence for bibliographers trying to determine how the edition was put together and, hence, how its type was set for printing.
This descriptive bibliography does not list the contents of the book. For your final "cadaver book" desbib paper, be sure to briefly describe each section of the book that the edition sets off with a title or subtitle. The descriptions need not be longer than a phrase or sentence, but they will help distant scholars to know whether your copy, or theirs, are complete in all parts, or whether binders omitted sections from some copies.
Once you have done the edition-specific description of your book, identifying those elements of the book that every copy from that edition's printing should have, you can move on to the special, copy-specific observations that distinguish you copy of the book from every other copy that was printed in that edition. Those are located in the "Notes" section at the end of the description. See Goucher's Bright Collection copy of the 1598 Speght Chaucer for an interesting example of such copy-specific notes.
Identifying the edition: the case of the "Moby Shakespeare" vs. Print Editions; Title Pages (complex or simple) vs. Colophons (early hand-press sense of the word) vs. Printers Marks, AKA "colophons" (modern printer's colophon) Signatures, pagination, and bibliographic description
Some web pages to help you do your "desbib" on the cadaver book: quick guide to format determination; desbib links and advice.
Additional discoveries using online resources can help us understand details of a given book's provenance, such as the location of a previous owner's library, in one case the Sammelband of an essay and six comedies by Samuel Foote (London: various printers, 1747-1757. Click here for a link to the image of an oil painting of Enys, Penryn, Cornwall, home of the owners of the Foote play Sammelband, seen from the library window (thanks to Camden Kimura, 241 TA, Fall 2011!)