Before the invention of the printing press, the duplication of an important piece of literature or religious work was done by hand. This job of copying, or transcription, was done by a scribe. In ancient Egypt, scribes were trained in writing through the copying of extracts from classic Egyptian works.
Ancient Egyptians were buried with religious texts that contained spells, prayers, rituals, and instructions for the afterlife. After they became too numerous to be recorded on the coffin, these were written on papyrus and placed in the coffin. These texts became a major industry as scribes made thousands of copies. Places for the name of the deceased would be left blank until the papyrus was purchased, when the scribe would fill in the name. Mistakes were sometimes made if the scribe did not understand what he was writing or if more than one scribe worked simultaneously on different sections.
Transcription continued to be done on papyrus scrolls in the Greek and Roman eras as important works were copied to fill the Library of Alexandria and to provide copies of important scientific and philosophical texts to scholars. During the Coptic era, Christians made copies of the Bible, lives of the saints, biographies of the Church fathers, and other religious texts. An industry of manuscript production grew in Christian churches and monasteries where several professions related to the forming and decorating of books evolved. At several monasteries scattered around Northern Egypt, the monks of the Coptic Church perfected the format and binding of the codex, which was formed of sheets of paper bound between two covers.
In the Islamic period, copying the Qur'an was considered an act of piety and was usually done by scribes who had memorized the entire book. These scribes were trained calligraphers who could produce identical books in exquisite script by hand. The use of calligraphy for the reproduction of texts, even non-religious books, was considered a form of fine art. Books written by hand were produced with an extremely high level of quality and accuracy and an industry for the reproduction of texts was soon established.
During the Abbasid era, many calligraphers earned a living copying books. Books were sometimes commercially copied in writing rooms associated with public libraries. Whoever wanted to copy a book in the library could do so. Some authors began issuing books by authorization only to protect themselves from plagiarism. Schools were established to teach calligraphy and encourage the skills of translation and transcription. Egyptian schools were particularly celebrated during the Fatimid era.
State-run translation agencies were established to translate the writings of Galen, Hippocrates, and other Hellenistic scholars from Greek into Arabic. Arabic became the language of international scholarship as scholars translated ideas from Greek, Latin, ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and other languages. Islamic scholars organized this important scientific and philosophical knowledge into encyclopedias, to which they added their own observations and findings.