Hard and Soft Paywalls

I don’t know how I got this far as a librarian without realizing until last week that there is a term for those paywalls that you see mostly on magazine and newspaper websites where you are allowed a set number of articles per month for free: a soft paywall. In reference interactions, I had been relying on using a laborious explanation to refer to that thing that the user was asking for assistance with (specifically, how they could get around the paywall to view the article that was so tantalizing close at hand). Now I’ve got a nice piece of jargon to use that may or may not need explaining to the user depending on the context.

Over the years, I’ve seen steady growth in reference questions where the user has found a paywalled article and wants to know if we can help them with it. The most common publications that generate this problem for us are the Atlantic, the Financial Times, the Economist, and the Wall Street Journal. Sometimes, I can just get the article for them and send it because we have in a database (even those tricky ones that aren’t in the regular periodical but are web-only articles). Sometimes, though, it’s web-only content that we don’t have access to in a database at all (the Atlantic is the worst for this). If I’m lucky, I haven’t hit the soft paywall yet on my own computer, and can get the article and send it to the user.

I’ve heard of librarians using the 12ft Ladder service to get around the paywall but haven’t used it in actual reference interaction yet. On their website, the folks behind it explain how it works this way:

The idea is pretty simple, news sites want Google to index their content so it shows up in search results. So they don’t show a paywall to the Google crawler. We benefit from this because the Google crawler will cache a copy of the site every time it crawls it.

All we do is show you that cached, unpaywalled version of the page.