As a lover of cities, of geography, and of reference books, I have been delighted by the trend over the last 20 years to create alphabetical reference books – usually called “encyclopedias” – for states, regions, and cities.
Before the rise of such books, many of the subjects I was interested in were very hard to research, especially on a local or regional basis. While department stores were more important in New York City than any other city in the world, most retail history books did not provide information on the secondary but still important New York operators. Chicago may have been the home of the world’s largest airport for most of aviation history, but you could not really find detailed information on the story of Chicago aviation. The neighborhoods of Los Angeles, each intriguing and unique, could not be found in the World Book or the Britannica except for Hollywood. The stories of the newspapers of Indianapolis or Cleveland were a mystery. Some highly regional industries, like real estate development, were difficult to find out anything about.
If you grew up in a city or loved a state, there were not unified sources to learn about all aspects of it, from government to commerce, culture to parks and buildings. Studying important local personalities was close to impossible.
All that is gradually changing. At the right, I have listed a number of great city, state, and regional encyclopedias, all characterized by their comprehensive nature combined with their local focus. I do not know how I understood these places before these books came out.
I won’t bother describing each or recommending one above the other. If you want to get a feel for them, pick the place that most interests you and get that one. All of these books are excellent, and this list is not complete, as new ones continue to be published.
What the world needs is more books like these, not only covering every city and state, but also the nations of the world. An encyclopedia on France or Italy – in English as well as the home language – would be an invaluable thing to have. And the same goes for Austin, St. Louis, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Atlanta, and many other cities.