These websites have it covered

By , csmonitor.com

Is it fair to judge a website by its cover (or covers, as the case may be)? Well, when covers are the site's main content and reason for being, it seems like a reasonably fair proposition. But presentation still counts for something, and sites like the Smithsonian Institution's Cover Art: The Time Collection and Jim Bumgardner's CoverPop both - in their own unique ways - present their content in a manner that even brings a bit of entertainment to the exploration. Because even if you're being deliberately superficial, you still want to do it right.

The Smithsonian's "Cover Art" is an online-only exhibition of Time Magazine covers - selected from more than 2,000 portraits commissioned for that publication, and subsequently donated to the National Portrait Gallery. And while one may normally imagine ornately framed oils of distinguished luminaries when thinking of the NPG, the Time covers offer a much closer to 'street level' survey of the prominent figures of any specific period. (And as the exhibit demonstrates, some covers also offer insight about the period as well.)

After an eye-catching splash page image of the Beatles from 1967, accompanied by a fairly extensive but entirely unobtrusive text introduction to the exhibit, Cover Art opens into a virtually tab-, hyperlink-, and button-free interface. There are conventional links for such housekeeping as Credits and Copyright information, but the exhibition itself is an elegantly simple tiled layout of 22 cover illustrations (much more attractive than that sounds), which scroll around as you move your mouse, and zoom in and out with a press of the Z and X keys.

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Within this opening collection, surfers encounter such personalities as Bob Hope, Julia Child, Joe Namath, Maria Callas, and Albert Einstein - depicted in forms that range from straight photography, to cartoons and paintings, to a bronze sculpture, in the case of John Wayne. Also included is the portrait that appeared on the very first issue of Time in 1923. (The name of Joseph Gurney Cannon might not ring a bell today, but the 86-year-old, 23-term veteran of Congress would certainly have been well known on the occasion of his retirement from politics.)

Click on a cover, and a new page opens with at least three elements. Most conspicuous is a large version of the selected portrait, which can be opened into a full screen image with the ability to zoom in for a detailed inspection of the likeness. The zoom capability is a welcome feature for all the cover images, but it's especially useful while viewing three-dimensional artifacts. For example, the cover featured on the exhibition's splash page (which captured a set of papier-mâché Beatles adorned with such tasteful and costly accessories as fabric originally intended for the Dalai Lama), benefited greatly from the zooming option - and in fact, could have done with even more magnification.

In the upper right corner of each portrait's 'home page' is a thumbnail (which opens into a larger pop-in version on request) of the image as it appeared on Time. In a borderless text box to the right of the image is 'the story behind the cover,' as curator James Barber reveals details and decisions specific to each portrait - sometimes revealing more about the times than about the subject. (Witness the unexpected backlash in 1969 to what would now be considered a quite tame depiction of Raquel Welch.) Finally, in some cases a cover's page will also have a brief audio file, as when Duke Ellington appears to strains of "Sophisticated Lady," and Martin Luther King to a sample of his "I have a dream" speech.

In addition to the covers featured on the exhibition's main page, a handful of special collections take a more extensive look at such subjects as Sports, Civil Rights, Technology, some "Man of the Year" choices made between 1927 and 1962, and a feature dedicated to the person most frequently featured on Time's covers. Richard Nixon (surprised?) appeared 55 times between 1952 and 1994, and six of those portraits are on display here.

While "The Time Collection" mixes a bit of education with its entertainment, the collections at CoverPop.com are purely recreational. First launched in mid-October as a single page displaying covers from more than 3,400 science fiction novels, CoverPop has grown to include one-page collections of covers from Mad Magazine, graphic novels, mysteries, vintage pulp, and women's and science magazines, plus a world of Harry Potter jackets. (And if you want a break from the books, collections of 'nonliterary' subjects, such as musical instruments, board games, cereal boxes, and even "500 Gifts For Geeks" have also been compiled.)

In each case, the collection is presented as a seemingly random mess of thumbnail images filling the browser screen. (In fact, there is an order to the arrangements, and each page will point out any clues to such layout-dependent variables as vintage, or for collectibles, price.) Rest your mouse pointer over a thumbnail, and a larger version of the image rises out of the mass along with a line or two of information. Click on the new image, and CoverPop takes you to the original offsite source page.

And that's all there is to it. Like some sort of online flea market where the primary purpose is to just poke around and see what you find, CoverPop is the kind of site for which the term "idle curiosity" most fittingly exists. It's true that some of the links will take interested surfers to genuinely useful information, or even to dealers if they are so inclined, but the vast majority of visitors will be 'just browsing, thanks' - and that fits CoverPop's mandate just fine.

Cover Art: The Time Collection at the National Portrait Gallery can be found at http://www.npg.si.edu/time/ with CoverPop at http://www.coverpop.com/.

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