Kevin Starr was born in San Francisco, California, and attended the University of San Francisco, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1962. After graduation he served for two years as a lieutenant in a tank battalion in Germany (the 68th Armored Brigade of the U.S. Army, in what was then West Germany). Upon release from the service, Starr entered Harvard University where he earned an MA degree in 1965 and a PhD in 1969 in American Literature. He taught American Literature until 1973, and then moved to California where he has lived since 1974. He received a Masters in Library Science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1974 while he was San Francisco City Librarian. From 1974 to 1989 he was professor or visiting lecturer at numerous California universities, including UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Riverside, Santa Clara University, the University of San Francisco, and Stanford University. In 1989 Starr became Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California, and was promoted to University Professor of History in 1998. Starr sometimes teaches at the USC State Capital Center in Sacramento, California.
Starr served as California State Librarian from 1994 to April 1, 2004, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger named him State Librarian Emeritus. Starr is the author of the ongoing multi-volume history of California collectively entitled "Americans and the California Dream". The first volume in the series, "Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915" was published in 1973. His most recent volume, which covers the period from 1950 to 1963, entitled "Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance" won the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history.
In 2006, Starr was made a member of the College of Fellows of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. In November 2006 he was awarded a National Humanities Medal. On July 7, 2010, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver announced that Starr would be a 2010 inductee of the California Hall of Fame; the induction ceremony was held on December 14, 2010 at The California Museum. He was presented with The Robert Kirsch Award by the Los Angeles Times as part of the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.
- Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915. (1973 and 1986) New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 494. ISBN 978-0195016444 (1986) OCLC 641725018, 254930084
- Land's End (a novel) (1979) ISBN 0-07-060880-6
- Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (1985) ISBN 0-19-503489-9
- "Sunset Magazine and the Phenomenon of the Far West". Sunset magazine: a century of Western living, 1898-1998. Stanford University Libraries. 1998. ISBN 978-0-911221-17-6.
- Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (1990) ISBN 0-19-504487-8
- Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (1996) ISBN 0-19-510080-8
- The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (1997) ISBN 0-19-510079-4
- Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (2002) ISBN 0-19-512437-5
- Coast Of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2002 (2004) ISBN 0-679-41288-3
- California: a history. Random House. 2005. ISBN 978-0-679-64240-4.
- Golden dreams: California in an age of abundance, 1950-1963. Oxford University Press US. July 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-515377-4.
- Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge. Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 9781596915343.
- "Biographical Sketch:Kevin Starr State Librarian Emeritus". California State Library web site. 2007. Retrieved May 26, 2010. (Full CV in PDF format from October 2003)
- "Kevin Owen Starr: University Professor and Professor of History". Faculty profiles. University of Southern California. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
- "SPPD Affiliated Faculty". USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development web site. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
- "2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalists". Los Angeles Times. April 2010. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
- "Winners of the National Humanities Medal and the Charles Frankel Prize". National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
- Staff writer (April 19, 2013). "Announcing the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize winners". LA Times. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
- John Adams (2009). "City Noir". Adams' web site. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
- Daniel B. Wood (October 27, 2004). "A historian's view of the changing 'California dream'". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
- "Kevin Starr". interviewed on KQED's Forum by Scott Shafer. July 1, 2009. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
- Herbert Gold (July 9, 2009). "Resplendent in the American Sun". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 8, 2010.