I’ve been hammering for a while the lack of great writers doing work on most of the cities of the country. A few places have tons of great books written about them. Others almost none. Some major cities don’t even have a single solid history written about them.
On the other hand, there are a number of projects that have been done and remain ongoing. One of the best was a trend that happened in the 1980s and 90s I believe. That was the creation and publication of city encyclopedias for basically every major city I know. These are incredible and accessible reference works on many places. Chicago’s is online if you want to read it. I’m not sure how many of these are being actively updated. But they are key civic references in my view.
Plenty of other books (and increasingly documentaries) have been published over the years. Many of these are officially sponsored history, so have the air of the authorized biography. Others are personal passion projects. Many of them are of mixed value. But at least they are a starting point for future researchers.
One recent example is a book about the history and design of the Episcopal cathedral of Kansas City. It’s 560 pages on a narrow, specialized topic, so not likely to be a bestseller. It appears to have been commissioned by the diocese, so some might question the independence. But this surely represents an immense amount of research in primary materials that produces important information about the local history that can then be drawn on by other writers who might otherwise be under-resourced for taking on this kind of endeavor. (You can read a review of this book Sacred Architecture magazine. I should stress that I offer no opinion of this book’s quality as I have not read it).
There are also a number of projects that operate as a sort of hybrid of research, journalism, and marketing. They aren’t traditional book projects, but are trying to take history about a place and turn it into something consumable by contemporary residents.
In Indianapolis, the web site Historic Indianapolis is doing this. They’ve created quite a library of web pages about historic buildings. There’s enough there that they could conceivably create their own encyclopedia style book. (The local chapter of the AIA has also published a couple of historic building surveys).
Another interesting project there is a sort of annual magazine called Commercial Article. The graphic design firm Commercial Artisan started publishing these as a marketing tool. They created what would essentially be longform magazine features about overlooked designers from the past of Indianapolis. I find this one interesting because the material is being recapitulated in a form designed to appeal to the modern creative. It’s a sort of attempt to create a historic backstory to a local design community that basically didn’t have much consciousness of one.
Lastly, further towards the marketing end of the spectrum is a project in Akron called Akronicity. This is an official civic initiative sponsored by the Convention and Visitors Bureau. It includes a booklet and web site. The idea seems to be to produce very easily digestible capsule summaries of various aspects of Akron’s past through a series of topical stories about music, etc.
From a 600 page book about a cathedral to a web site with short reviews of history is a big spectrum. None of these are big mass market products. But they fill a gap and provide future writers with base material. They aren’t the total solution to the lack of writing problem, but there are useful projects like this being developed.