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The Art of Legibility
by Shawn Corrado
Feb 2016
Citation:   Corrado, S. "The Art of Legibility". Erowid Extracts. Feb 2016;28:18-19. Online edition: Erowid.org/culture/characters/shulgin_alexander/shulgin_alexander_article8.shtml
Hand Drawn Blood Level/Effects Timeline
Scan from Pharmacology Notebook with Shulgin Letterhead
"Smells Were More Noticeable"
Page from Shulgin Pharmacology Book (Scan) - BOD
Page from Shulgin Pharmacology Book (Transcribed) - BOD

When I started working on the Shulgin Archiving project in 2009, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. What I knew for sure was that I wanted to give back to Erowid in a way that felt more significant than just giving money, which I didn't have much of. What I did have was time. I browsed around the volunteering part of the Erowid site and noticed they were looking for people to help with transcribing scans of Alexander Shulgin's lab notebooks. Being a huge fan of the Shulgins and their work over the years, this sounded like a great way to kill two birds with one stone -- a way to give back to both Erowid and Sasha. Wonderful, application sent.

There seemed to have been a number of volunteers before my participation, but progress had been slow because the transcription process is difficult and involves highly technical language and drawings. Some initial work had been done on the first (and most complicated) pharmacology lab book, with the text entered plainly into a wiki page, but it didn't look to have been touched in some time.

I am now approaching transcribing my one-thousandth page of Sasha's work.
Six years later, here I sit in the middle of the night, two monitors glowing in my face as I peck at my keyboard and squint at pages of nearly illegible handwriting. It took almost two painstaking years before reading Sasha's writing became like reading my own. Eventually, I began to understand and recognize all of his shorthand with ease. I am now approaching transcribing my one-thousandth page of Sasha's work.

When I joined the project, the task was simply to transcribe the scans into text, but I wasn't satisfied with the final output. I wanted to figure out how to present these books in a readily accessible format that was both machine- and human-readable for ease of searching, while redacting the names of people who had not yet approved being publicly acknowledged. At first I considered using HTML, but due to its shortcomings (and my lack of HTML programming skills), I decided to create PDF documents matching the look and style of the original pages (see facing page).

The first documents we received from Team Shulgin were redacted scans of notebook pages, but the redacting was inconsistent. What I needed was access to the un-redacted scans of original books. This presented an opportunity that I will never forget as long as I live. Erowid Center facilitated getting me invited to the Shulgin Farm in California, for what must have been one of the last annual Easter parties with Sasha in attendance. This gave me the chance to meet Earth and Fire and the man himself, along with the rest of Team Shulgin, and they were able to put a face to my email address and know I could be trusted. That day was every bit as great as one could imagine; I spent most of the day in Sasha's lab just soaking it all in, hanging out with Paul Daley, and meeting and talking to a lot of interesting people.

After that, the lab notebook transcribing project was mine -- I am still working on it today. It's hard to attract additional volunteers for this task due to its tedious nature, which even to a Shulginophile drug geek is more monotonous than you might imagine. A labour of love for sure! Sometimes I wonder if the only reason I make progress is out of sheer stubbornness. The number of hours I've poured into these notebooks is greater than I'd like to admit, but I feel I've created something that will provide lasting value to curious seekers in the future. Even if all that comes of it is a permanent online record of Sasha's work, it will have been worth every minute.


Photo Credits #
  1. All images from the Shulgin Archives.
Revision History #
  • v1.0 - Feb 2016 - published in Erowid Extracts.
  • v1.1 - Feb 2017 - Erowid - Published on Erowid.org.