First, please be aware I am definitely a beginner when it comes to server maintenance or network administration. That being said, if I am asking this question in the wrong forum, please feel free to redirect me.
Despite my lack of experience in the IT field (I'm a mechanical engineer), I am still by far the most qualified in our small office to handle issues like this. I was a software consultant for several years out of college, so I can recall enough SQL and C#/C++ to get by if I need to, but want to keep it as technically light as possible.
Right now I'm using Excel to handle all documentation control and product data sheet creation. These are functions probably best suited for a database. I've toyed with OpenOffice Base as a good free alternative, but unless I'm missing something, it seems to come up short on features that a full-fledged SQL Server or PL/SQL database would have.
This should be expected, seeing as it's free, but I hear a lot of talk about mySQL as a good starting place, especially if I intend to start publishing reports or creating forms for data entry.
On all of these issues I'm a bit clueless, but first thing's first: What is the best option to get started with a database product (preferably free) that I can develop into an office-wide server once I know what I'm doing?