A scribe is simply someone who writes, classically by hand. Given the long tradition which accompanies the written word, it should come as no surprise to learn that scribes have their own complex history. Scribes have recorded accounts and human history for thousands of years, in every language imaginable and using tools as varied as styluses and ballpoint pens. The work of scribes can be seen in museums around the world, along with depictions of scribes in action.
The word is derived from the Latin scribere, which means “to write.” Classically, scribes were paid to keep accounts, especially financial accounts. They also took notes on legal proceedings, and documented court decisions. In eras when the skill of writing and reading was not widespread, a scribe could help to connect a community, and to ensure that information was preserved in a way which could be accessed, even if only by a few.
Through the 15th century, the only way to record something in writing was by physically writing it. Scribes acted as secretaries, taking dictation, keeping records, and keeping track of ledgers. They also worked in marketplaces; people who could not read or write could approach a scribe, also called a scrivener, and dictate a letter which could be read to the recipient by another scrivener. The trade of writing for a living was quite profitable for many scribes, especially when they were expected to handle sensitive and confidential information such as legal documents.
In Jewish tradition, a scribe is a scholar and teacher. Sofers, Hebrew calligraphers, continue to produce handwritten Torahs and other Jewish ephemera today. Calligraphers also work on other holy texts like the Qu'ran and the Bible, although the days of monkish scribes hand writing Bibles are long gone. The term "scribe" s also sometimes used to refer more generally to people who write for a living; it is especially common to refer to journalists as “scribes,” referencing their scribbled notes taken in the field.
Thanks to a long tradition of record keeping with scribes, archaeologists and historians can learn a great deal about previous human societies. Early human communities in the Fertile Crescent, for example, conveniently left cuneiform tablets behind; although the contents of these tablets are not terribly interesting, they do paint a picture of the Mesopotamian system of trade. The Egyptians also famously kept scribes; alas, many of the papyrus scrolls they produced were burned as fuel to power early steam trains in Egypt, but some still survive.