Very preterm birth (VPTB) is a leading cause of infant mortality, morbidity and racial disparity in the US. The underlying causes of VPTB are multiple and poorly understood. The California Very Preterm Birth Study was conducted to discover maternal and infant genetic and environmental factors associated with VPTB. This paper describes the study design, population, data and specimen collection, laboratory methods and characteristics of the study population. Using a large, population-based cohort created through record linkage of livebirths delivered from 2000 to 2007 in five counties of southern California, and existing data and banked specimens from statewide prenatal and newborn screening, 1100 VPTB cases and 796 control mother-infant pairs were selected for study (385/200 White, 385/253 Hispanic and 330/343 Black cases/controls, respectively). Medical record abstraction of cases was conducted at over 50 hospitals to identify spontaneous VPTB, improve accuracy of gestational age, obtain relevant clinical data and exclude cases that did not meet eligibility criteria. VPTB was defined as birth at <32 weeks in Whites and Hispanics and <34 weeks in Blacks. Approximately 55% of all VPTBs were spontaneous and 45% had medical indications or other exclusions. Of the spontaneous VPTBs, approximately 41% were reported to have chorioamnionitis. While the current focus of the California Very Preterm Birth Study is to assess the role of candidate genetic markers on spontaneous VPTB, its design enables the pursuit of other research opportunities to identify social, clinical and biological determinants of different types of VPTB with the ultimate aim of reducing infant mortality, morbidity and racial disparities in these health outcomes in the US and elsewhere.