What is a "cadaver book"?
Our study of hand-press printed texts and their physical/digital "packaging" resembles medical students' study of human beings. The texts and their mental meanings might be said to be the books' "souls," beautiful and hard to understand, and most of all, hard to preserve and to discuss. The text's "body" exists in physical forms which change with each technological era we study. At the beginning of the course, we will be looking at digital codes read by computers from various storage media and projected on a variety of screen images from places near and far. Once we leave that world behind, we will be working in what Roger Chartier called "the Order of Books." Those book-based texts have distinctive physical bodies whose elements we will study just like the medical student studies human anatomy with the aid of a cadaver. Your "cadaver book," which you will choose from a book cart on the first day of class, will be your single example of the species which you will study at the beginning of class and as often as you like when Special Collections is open. Your long-term examination of that book, in all its individual and general details, will help us to understand books as a "species" of texts which are becoming increasingly rare in our world.
As you learn more about your cadaver book, please take good care of it. The medical students' cadavers sacrifice themselves utterly, down to the last bone and ligament, to teach young doctors how human bodies work. We cannot afford to let you dissect these cadaver books, but some of them already are damaged in ways which will reveal other books' secrets of construction. All should be preserved in the state in which you received them. More than a few of them are considered "rare" and would cost far more than their original purchase price if we had to replace them, and even the most ordinary will become more valuable to you as they reveal their mysteries.
All printed books have two types of attributes: "edition-specific" and "copy-specific." Edition-specific attributes can be identified because books coming off a printing press and passing through a bindery are assembled according to instructions given by editors to their makers. All books from a single edition share common features by which librarians, scholars, and collectors identify them, like foliation or pagination, title pages or colophons, binding signatures, page headers and footers, tables and illustrations and indices. Changes in printing and binding during the press run can produce subtle (or large!) changes between books from the same edition, and edition-specific description which records of the marks of those "state" changes constitute the most thorough form of "bibliographic description" (AKA "desbib"), which we will study later in the semester. Then, after printing, each individual book undertakes a life-journey of its own which will leave more marks upon its binding and interior pages, like bumps, tears, annotations, inserted materials, "cancelled" or torn-out pages, and countless other "copy-specific" details. As you handle your cadaver book, first try to learn more about its edition-specific characteristics, but as you do so, also take note of the copy-specific details by which your copy differs from every other one in that edition. Like the cadaver's fingerprints and dental records and DNA, they are the signs of your book's unique and most intimate identity.
To begin your research in the edition-specific evidence about your book, search for your "cadaver book" using these four search engines: the English Short Title Catalogue (if your book was printed in England or the colonies before 1800); the Goucher Library's Advanced Keyword Search, WorldCat.org's advanced search,, the University of Karlsruhe Library virtual catalog. (if your book was printed in Europe), and the ABEBooks advanced search engine at http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchEntry. What have you learned about your book? If you have trouble using any of these search engines, please let me know so that I may help you. Remember this is only the first stage in knowing the book, itself, since an "ideal edition" description might differ significantly from your book, which has been around for hundreds of years!