The success of the Lost Wollongong website shows that the Illawarra is passionate about its history, writes LOUISE TURK.
For most people, there is great joy in looking back fondly at the past, and the digital era has opened a whole new world for people interested in yesteryear.
We are logging on to social media sites and websites in droves, seeking out those little nuggets of information or images that help us define who we are.
We are hooked on our own history, whether it's a black and white photo of our kindergarten class, a shipping record that shows when our ancestors landed on Australian soil, or a picture of a cool car we remember from childhood.
For a region that is sports-mad, and will turn out in the thousands to watch a Dragons game, the Illawarra has also proved itself in recent times to be passionate about history. Especially history that relates to this region.
'People love looking back on their childhood and where they grew up, whether it be their town, their family, school or workplace.'
Mention the term Lost Wollongong and anyone with a computer will know what you are talking about.
Lost Wollongong is one of Wollongong's little (or more accurately) big surprises.
It's a social media group on Facebook, which in just 12 months has attracted a massive 10,600 members.
And those members have uploaded 15,000 historical images on to the site.
"Our members are breathing new life into old memories that have almost been lost with the passage of time, ensuring they are never forgotten," says Lost Wollongong co-founder David Bottin.
Lost Wollongong has become the Illawarra's largest online heritage community forum.
Its success has even taken aback Bottin and Brenden Brain, two local lads with an interest in the Illawarra's history who founded the online group.
"The response has been absolutely massive," says Bottin from his Mount Keira home.
"We expected to get maybe 7000 members in the first year but to get more than 10,000 even before we hit our first anniversary was just incredible."
Bottin, who caught the Facebook bug early, comes from a railway-working family.
In his youth, he volunteered at the Illawarra Light Railway Museum at Albion Park and with 3801 Limited.
"When I was on Facebook, I was looking at heritage pages and I came across pages for Lost Newcastle and Lost Sydney, which had about 6000 members each [at the time]," he says.
"I couldn't find anything similar for Wollongong.
"I knew there was 'Lost' pages all around the world. One of my mates in the States has a Lost San Francisco page and it's massive."
Bottin said given the Illawarra's proud history - from the first Australians to the early European settlers, and its agricultural, mining and heavy industries - he figured there would be interest from locals and expats to share their memories and photos with others.
Bottin and Brain, and the site's administration guru Janet Rogers, were on to a winner.
"People generally love reminiscing," Bottin says.
"People love looking back on their childhood and where they grew up, whether it be recalling their town, their family, school or workplace."
Online discussions have included memories of corner shops, people's first jobs and cars, and entertainment experiences of the region's early rock'n'roll venues and picture theatres.
Yet the most popular activity on Lost Wollongong is looking at old photos, many submitted from private collections and others supplied by Wollongong City Libraries Local Studies Unit.
"The main thing people are doing once they sign up is perusing photos and commenting on them," Bottin says.
"The fact that we have been able to encourage members to look through their old photo collections and share them to ensure they are preserved for future generations to enjoy has been fantastic.
"The photos have not only brought back many memories but inspired many fond conversations.
"It is not unusual to have someone comment on a photograph and then have a member recall that person and start up a whole new conversation."
Bottin says most members still reside in the Illawarra, although many connect from interstate and overseas.
One of the group's main administrators grew up in Tarrawanna yet has lived in Queensland for many years.
"She is heavily involved in the site and she's like a lot of other people who just love the Illawarra and love its history," says Bottin.
Bottin says the ease of access with social media attracted members in age from teenagers right through to retirees.
"Some of our most active members are in their 60s and 70s," he says.
Yet Lost Wollongong is also attracting members as young as 16.
"It shows that even younger people love to look back at history that was way before their time, just because they are fascinated by it," he says.
"They are not so much reminiscing, they just want to learn more about history."
Bottin says the internet has revolutionised the way people learn more about their personal history and public history.
"In the past, if you wanted to do these things, you had to go to old school reunions or go to the local studies section of the library," he says.
"Now with the internet, and particularly with social media, it's such an easy way to access your history.
"It encourages people to be more involved, whereas in the past they may have wanted to be more involved but they couldn't."
Bottin sees Lost Wollongong as more than just a site for people to connect and share their memories. The brand is being used to promote heritage events in the region and other historical organisations.
Last month, a new Facebook page was launched, Lost Wollongong - Showcasing the Illawarra Region's History, to complement the social media group.
"It's a dedicated site for people who would like to learn more about our region's amazing history, the wonderful work of local heritage organisations and upcoming heritage events," Bottin says.
Lost Wollongong has also been launched on Twitter and Instagram and has its own webpage.
If turning back time is your thing, there's lots of history-based pages to visit on Facebook including Thirroul History in Photos, Kembla Jottings, Black Diamond Heritage Centre Bulli, and Dapto History in Photos.
Wollongong City Libraries also has its online Illawarra Remembers 1914-1918 project and its online Illawarra Images (a collection of images from the local area from the mid-1800s) and the Illawarra Index (articles that relate to local issues from the early 1800s).
The Italian Social Welfare Organisation of Wollongong (ItSoWel) is launching a virtual museum of Italian immigration in the Illawarra. The website goes live today and can be found here.
Balgownie-based historian Carol Herben, who has researched her own family history, said the digital era had made it easier for people to uncover the stories behind the basic facts and information.
"It's nice to know the bones of it - the births, deaths and marriages but people want to know more about their ancestors," she said.
"The internet is very useful for people to research more details, such as where did their ancestor work, where was their business and did they hold a position?
"It fills in the blanks for people in their ancestor's history."
Herben was recognised with an Order of Australia Medal in the Queen's Birthday Honours list for service to the Illawarra.
She has had many roles in promoting the region's heritage, including honorary president of the Illawarra Historical Society (2004-07 and 2010-13), Illawarra Museum manager from 2009-13 and member of the Wollongong City Council heritage advisory group.
Herben says looking back into the past was not only a sentimental journey but hopefully, an educative one as well.
"I think there is so much to learn from our past," she says.
"It gives us a window into our past and it builds our knowledge."
Herben says there are so many stories yet to be told in the Illawarra's history.